|NUMBER 1710.—January 23, 2008||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a lecture that Eli Siegel gave over half a century ago, and that is still new today and needed in its kind, culturally wide, critically powerful understanding of people. It is Some Women Looked At, of May 1952.
Mr. Siegel brings together and comments on various descriptions of women, some real, some fictional. “When we see,” he says, “how women have been written about, we can have a very useful sense of the diversity of things themselves, because woman represents Things: that is, reality.” What emerges is a vivid, rich, specific, pulsating illustration of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
In the section printed here, he quotes Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) on three women. Though Mr. Siegel does not name the opposites, we see a drama, in women, of assertion and yielding, and related opposites, like pride and humility, affecting and being affected.
We are in a time so different from the Victorian time of Macaulay. Women—thankfully—can do so much more, and are in every career and field of education. Yet those opposites, assertion and yielding, trouble women today. A woman, for instance, can assert herself as a lawyer or professor or politician, and yield in a man's arms five hours later; yet she does not feel she is the same person doing both. She wants both, has a right to both; but the rift, not described clearly before Aesthetic Realism, makes for pain and a deep unsureness in her.
A Woman Understood
I am a woman who has been understood by Aesthetic Realism, including, in lessons, directly by Eli Siegel himself. I am going to quote three instances of his speaking to me, in which I learned about forms of those opposites, assertion and yielding, in myself. I was in my early and mid-twenties, and these discussions are part of the education that enabled me to change as people long to change—to be more truly myself.
The first is from a lesson when I was 23 and there was anger between me and the man I was then seeing, whom I'll call John Wilmont. As Mr. Siegel explained the cause, he was speaking about an aspect of assertion which, we'll see, is present in one of Macaulay's descriptions, that of Lady Holland. This corrupt form of self-assertion is managing . We can try, as she did, to manage many people, but also, as Mr. Siegel describes, a particular person, intimately. He asked me:
What is a possible motive you and John Wilmont have? There is the desire to assist another—and also a kind of ruthless sculpture. Do you know how you can want to shape Mr. Wilmont? People don't know how much they want to shape another without full regard for the other. When people suffer they don't know how imperial they are. Everybody is in a mess about kindness and power.
The thing in every person that corrupts the opposites is contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Contempt has us “want to shape another without full regard for the other”—affect a person without wanting to be affected by who that person truly is.
Contempt has many forms. It is within the situation Macaulay describes so eloquently and feelingly as he writes about the novelist Fanny Burney. She, at the height of her fame, took a position as servant to the Queen, and she was certainly a victim of others' contempt in the royal household. Yet Fanny Burney would not have made herself so humble, so yielding to royalty, had there not been in her the contempt which was snobbishness. The desire to be associated with “the right people,” to make ourselves important through connections with people who have position, who are touted, who can look down on others—this is part of contempt. And the admirable, literarily indispensable Fanny Burney is an instance of how that false way of asserting self is really a terrible lessening of one's true value.
We Are Formidable & Yearning
Here is another aspect of those opposites assertion and yielding, affecting and being affected, described in me by Mr. Siegel. I had become briefly interested in a person, then quickly not so interested, and my unclearness about both had made me unsure of myself. Mr. Siegel explained what had happened:
When a woman sees a man doesn't trust himself and she feels she can bring confidence to him, she wants to. Was that present with Mr. V?
ES. Is it the best reason?
ER. No, it's not.
ES. How much confidence did you want Mr. V to give you? People want to give others confidence and not get it from them—get it all from oneself.
Then Mr. Siegel said this to me, describing me so deeply, so personally, yet millions of other women too:
Woman is yearning and formidable, formidable and yearning, and she has to make sense of these two. The problem, Ms. Reiss, isn't a man: it's the opposites in you.
Mental Activity & Being Moved
In another lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke about the fact that people haven't known themselves, and the not knowing oneself has made for suffering. In this discussion he described opposites in me related to assertion and yielding. These are the going for learning and the having of feeling; mental activity and being moved. He said:
Ellen Reiss doesn't know herself. She happens to be a mingling of desire for learning and personal energy. These two things caused trouble in, say, Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte Brontë was quite learned; at the same time there was tremendous passion in her, and her sister. The desire for learning accompanied by large feeling is good in literature, but as one goes through it, one has pain.
So if I were talking to Emily Brontë, and I'm sorry, sometimes, I didn't, I would say, “There are forces, Emily Brontë, in you, and do you think you know them as objects well enough, or do you just undergo them, are just driven by them?” And I'm sure she would say, “I'm just driven by them.”
ER. I feel I'm in very big company.
ES. All right. But what made them big company was not that they didn't know themselves. In fact, their not knowing themselves was against their lives as such.
The way Eli Siegel saw me, and saw all people, was beautiful. It is the way of seeing that's present now in Aesthetic Realism consultations. He enabled me, and Aesthetic Realism enables people, to have a knowledge of ourselves new in human history. It is knowledge of the opposites, including the opposites of assertion and yielding—opposites that are in an ocean, thundering to shore and falling back again; in a tree that towers proudly, yet bends gently in wind and welcomes rain upon it; in a symphony of Beethoven, with sound that grandly thrusts and achingly yearns.
These opposites are in women. They have confused us, even tormented us. Yet it is my happiness to know that through Aesthetic Realism we can understand them, see that they are aesthetic opposites, and make them one at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Macaulay & Three Women
By Eli Siegel
Presenting women further, I now use Thomas Babington Macaulay. As to romance, Macaulay is very unusual in English literature; as far as I know, he is about alone. There are two other people, Herbert Spencer and Isaac Newton, who have to do with English letters, though they are scientists, who don't seem to have had any romance whatsoever and don't seem to have missed it very much. Spencer, who wrote about everything—he was the man of the synthetic philosophy—knew George Eliot intellectually; they used to discuss things.
But Newton and Spencer are not belletristic; that is, they are not given to “beautiful letters” (belles lettres), literature. Macaulay is given to “beautiful letters.” I think I heard somewhere a faint whiff about a possible interest, for a short time, in a possible girl, but I never was able to verify it. Yet when he writes about women, he is decidedly interesting. He wrote many letters to his sister, Hannah More Macaulay, and he was interested in his nieces, but as far as I can see, sex did not rear its head in his life. If it did, the rearing was done when no one was looking.
There are many pictures of women in his works. Women aren't dull to him at all.
There Was Lady Holland
In 1831, Macaulay, who had written some very effective reviews in the Edinburgh Review, was invited to Holland House, which was the great Whig place of intellect and politics. There was Lord Holland—he had gout by now—and there was Lady Holland. She was born in 1770 and married Lord Holland in the '90s (he was born in 1773). They married after, it seems, Lady Holland was adulterous with him. She had been Elizabeth Vassall first and had married Sir Godfrey Webster.
They have this Holland House. It's in Kensington and is very famous in English letters because of the people who were there. To be invited to Holland House meant that you were seen as a refulgent Somebody in London.
So Macaulay was present. There already was a story that Lady Holland was ordering people around. She very delicately told people where to sit, what to eat, how to look, what to enjoy, even. But it seems she was a little afraid of Macaulay. Anyway, he watched her. He's writing a letter to his sister from London , May 30, 1831, and he describes Holland House. This is part of the letter, about Lady Holland:
After dinner Lord Holland was wheeled in and placed very near me. He was extremely amusing and good-natured.
In the drawing-room I had a long talk with Lady Holland ....She is certainly a woman of considerable talents and great literary acquirements. To me she was excessively gracious; yet there is a haughtiness in her courtesy which, even after all that I had heard of her, surprised me. The centurion did not keep his soldiers in better order than she keeps her guests. It is to one “Go,” and he goeth; and to another “Do this,” and it is done. “Ring the bell, Mr. Macaulay.” “Lay down that screen, Lord Russell; you will spoil it.” “Mr. Allen, take a candle and show Mr. Cradock the picture of Bonaparte.” Lord Holland is, on the other hand, all kindness, simplicity, and vivacity. He talked very well both on politics and on literature.
...The house certainly deserves its reputation for pleasantness, and her ladyship used me, I believe, as well as it is her way to use any body. Ever yours, T.B.M.
She represents a quality that is in literature: the lady who takes it upon herself to manage everything. And here is poor Lord Holland having the gout and being wheeled around, while she's managing.
The Father Problem
Then there is another picture. We must remember that whether a woman was high in the nobility, or the wife or daughter of a merchant, or the wife or daughter of a miner, there could be certain things in common that they had to face and think about. We have the father problem always.
From a letter of Macaulay to his sister (July 11, 1831), I am going to read a short bit about the daughter of Mr. Canning, George Canning, one of England 's prime ministers. She is defending her father. Macaulay writes:
She is very beautiful, and very like her father, with eyes full of fire, and great expression in all her features. She and I had a great deal of talk. She showed much cleverness and information, but, I thought, a little more of political animosity than is quite becoming....However, she has been placed in peculiar circumstances. The daughter of a statesman who was a martyr to the rage of faction may be pardoned for speaking sharply of the enemies of her parent: and she did speak sharply. With knitted brows, and flashing eyes, and a look of feminine vengeance about her beautiful mouth, she gave me such a character of Peel as he would certainly have had no pleasure in hearing.
This has much to do with English history. Peel and Canning are two of the most noted persons in English history, and here we have the picture of this lady, the Marchioness of Clanricarde, defending her father, knitting her brows, and flashing her eyes. For a person who wasn't interested in romance, Lord Macaulay sure watched women. This is very vivid.
There are other examples, but I am going to take one, not from the letters now, but from his essays. When Macaulay writes about a woman, he seems to see her as very lively.
The Terrible Choice of Fanny Burney
One of the interesting pictures of women, and of women as to women, is to be found in the essay on Mme d'Arblay—that is, Fanny Burney (1752-1840). Fanny (Frances) Burney became quite famous in her early twenties with the novel Evelina, which is still read. It is vivid and delicate and fast, and she was known all over London. Her father was an historian of music and taught music.
She was so well known that King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte, asked her to serve them, to be part of their household. Fanny Burney and her father consented. And Lord Macaulay says: You stupid people—what did you do that for? He says to her: Here you are, you have the best company in the world—Johnson and Burke and Windham and possibly Gibbon, and all the artists—and you're going to go to this stuffy royal household? And you, Fanny Burney, are going to take orders from that stuffy Queen Charlotte?!
We have women ruling others in this picture. We get a feeling of what people can be like: how arrogant and how stupid they can be. This is Macaulay on the matter:
When we consider that Miss Burney was decidedly the most popular writer of fictitious narrative then living, that competence, if not opulence, was within her reach, and that she was more than usually happy in her domestic circle, and when we compare the sacrifice which she was invited to make with the remuneration which was held out to her, we are divided between laughter and indignation.
What was demanded of her was that she should consent to be...almost as close a prisoner as if she had been sent to gaol for a libel; that with the talents which had instructed and delighted the highest living minds, she should now be employed only in mixing snuff and sticking pins; that she should...sometimes fast till she was ready to swoon with hunger, should sometimes stand till her knees gave way with fatigue; that she should not dare to speak or move without considering how her mistress might like her words and gestures. Instead of those distinguished men and women, the flower of all political parties, with whom she had been in the habit of mixing on terms of equal friendship, she was to have for her perpetual companion the chief keeper of the robes, an old hag from Germany, of mean understanding, of insolent manners....
Macaulay wonders at it, and then he describes her slavery, very vividly:
And now began a slavery of five years, of five years taken from the best part of life, and wasted in menial drudgery....Miss Burney had to rise and...be ready to answer the royal bell, which rang at half after seven. Till about eight she attended in the Queen's dressing-room, and had the honour of lacing her august mistress's stays, and of putting on the hoop, gown, and neckhandkerchief....Then the Queen was to be powdered and dressed....It was generally three before Miss Burney was at liberty. Then she had two hours at her own disposal....
At five she had to attend her colleague, Madame Schwellenberg, a hateful old toadeater, as illiterate as a chambermaid, as proud as a whole German Chapter, rude, peevish, unable to bear solitude, unable to conduct herself with common decency in society. With this delightful associate, Frances Burney had to dine, and pass the evening....If poor Frances attempted to escape to her own apartment, and to forget her wretchedness over a book, the execrable old woman railed and stormed....Yet, when Frances stayed, she was constantly assailed with insolent reproaches. Literary fame was, in the eyes of the German crone, a blemish, a proof that the person who enjoyed it was meanly born....All her scanty stock of broken English was employed to express the contempt with which she regarded the author of Evelina and Cecilia. Frances detested cards,...[but] consented, with patient sadness, to give hours, which might have called forth the laughter and the tears of many generations, to the king of clubs and the knave of spades.
Well, that is about women too.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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