This article by my colleague, Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein, includes a discussion of the important American actor Spencer Tracy.
Eli Siegel explained the most important thing about anger: there are two kinds of anger, one that strengthens us, one that weakens. In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #188, he wrote:
Aesthetic Realism says that a good anger has like of the world in it…and a bad or hurtful anger has…contempt for the world in it….What differentiates a handsome anger from an ugly anger is whether the anger is narrowly personal, is all for the advancement of ego…or is for something beautiful and just, sustained by space, time, and history.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a “beautiful and just” anger makes us stronger. In a bad anger, we hope the world is not to our liking, is less good so we can feel superior. This is contempt—which Aesthetic Realism explains is the greatest weakener of person’s mind. It is urgent that people study Aesthetic Realism so they can learn to distinguish between these two kinds of anger.
In my own life, outwardly I cultivated an agreeable, friendly personality, but inwardly I got very angry, when a situation didn’t go my way, or people didn’t do what I wanted them to do. This anger, I learned, was for “the advancement of my own ego” and it hurt my life. But without knowing the difference, I sometimes also had an anger which was for “something beautiful and just.” During the 60s and 70s, I was furious at America’s brutal and unjust war in Vietnam, and this was anger I was proud of.
To show that anger based on justice to the world makes a mind integrated and happier, and anger based on contempt is injurious, I tell about what I learned, and comment too on aspects of the life of an important actor of the 20th century, Spencer Tracy.
Tracy’s acting illustrates this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In his role as Father Flanagan in Boys Town—a young priest determined to build a home for boys in trouble with the law—he shows that toughness and compassion, reverence and earthiness can be together for the same purpose.
In many of the roles he played, Spencer Tracy had something like a beautiful anger—a toughness that was the same as kindness, and which moved people. As Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman in Captains Courageous, he is both critical and compassionate as he encourages a wealthy, spoiled boy of 12 to be kind.
Meanwhile in his life, Spencer Tracy suffered greatly because along with the beautiful impulsion towards art in him, too often he was angry in behalf of “something narrowly personal.” He was hoping very much to be able to understand these two kinds of anger, as men today can through the study of Aesthetic Realism.
“A Bad or Hurtful Anger” Begins Early
In a great lecture titled Aesthetic Realism and Anger, Mr. Siegel explains how anger begins in a person:
We are angry with the world because we don’t understand it….[I’ve said to people] “If you can be mixed-up without being angry, your mix-up will be useful to you. But if you change confusion into anger, then something will happen which isn’t good.”…Most people do not have the staying-power to be confused and to keep on looking for clearness without getting angry. They will change that confusion into the anger of vanity.
Like many children, I was angry at the way my parents were for one another one moment and against each other the next. They could be warm to each other; then there were fierce arguments about money and the in-laws. I came to feel the world was a mixed-up and bad place and I was angry with it.
My mind was a battleground. When I was about four and a half, I lost my balance and fell off the stoop of our garden apartment in Queens. Scraping my knee, I became furious at what I thought was that “mean” stoop, and I hit it with my fists as hard as I could, screaming at the concrete steps. I also remember feeling ashamed and foolish as the other children looked at me, puzzled.
These angry outbursts continued. Years later, waiting in line at a bank, I thought the teller was taking too long, and the longer I waited, the angrier I became. Other people seemed annoyed, too, but I felt my anger could get results. I started yelling at the teller to hurry up. Then, I went to the manager who then reprimanded her. But when I noticed that she had a badge indicating that she was a trainee, and she began to cry, I felt so bad. How could I be so mean?—I asked myself. I promised I would never get this angry again, but I did.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that people have felt that their greatest strength lies in their ability to be angry. Aesthetic Realism is beautifully dogmatic in saying that this is contempt; it makes a person cruel to the feelings of others and weak himself.
I am grateful that in Aesthetic Realism I met the greatest opposition to unjust anger. I learned that like every person, I was trying to put opposites together, the same opposites that are in the world—rest and motion, hardness and softness, surface and depth. As I began to see that the very people I hoped to be angry with were like me—their feelings were as real as my own—I changed!
In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Anger, Mr. Siegel explained:
The desire to be angry comes from the fact that we feel, very early, that what is going on in this world is not what suits us….We can…say that the world is a bad place for us, or we can try to find out why it doesn’t suit us. This is not an easy job.
That the world didn’t suit him is, I believe, what Spencer Bonaventure Tracy felt as he was growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the beginning years of the 20th Century. According to biographer Bill Davidson in Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, John Tracy, his father, was a “hard-driving, Irish Catholic business man” who suffered financial reverses, forcing the Tracy family to move often. The young Spencer disliked school and only went because his father forced him to. Mr. Tracy, Sr. was strict with his son, but he was also proud of the way Spencer could be aggressive.
I think Spencer Tracy used the way his father could be severe one moment and approving the next to feel the world did not make sense. In his biography Spencer Tracy, Larry Swindell writes that the young Tracy:
…Had a quick-flaring temper….He liked to tease, and he liked to use his fists…He was competitive, and hated to lose.
But there was that in the young Milwaukeean that was hoping, intensely, to feel the world did “suit him” and it came from the best thing in him—his desire to see meaning in the world.
Davidson writes that Tracy
had become an aficionado of the silent movies then playing in the local Bijou, and he put on shows in the basement of his…house. The shows were live, written by Spencer….His customers were charged one cent, and occasionally there were mini-riots over the quality of the scripts.
Tracy loved acting. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that acting, like all art, arises from a person’s desire to like the world. An actor feels a deep kinship between himself and the feelings of a character not himself, and as much as possible becomes that character. “Acting,” Eli Siegel said, “…is a way of being somebody else for the purpose of coming back home immediately. You take a trip in order to find out who you are.”
I learned too this tremendously important thing: all art has a true, beautiful anger in it. In his lecture Poetry and Anger, Mr. Siegel said: “All art in a sense, is anger, because you are taking a situation which doesn’t have form, and you are changing it, that is, destroying the formlessness of it, to make form.” Meanwhile, this kind of anger, present in the art Spencer Tracy loved—acting, in which he had a chance to give beautiful form to characters, lines, and situations in a movie—came from a completely different source than the anger he felt so much in his life.
Opposites in Anger and in Acting
In 1927, the director John Ford saw Tracy on Broadway in George M. Cohan’s Baby Cyclone, and persuaded Fox Studios to sign him for a leading role in Up the River, his first major feature film.
In the late 1930s, Spencer Tracy become the first actor to get the Academy Award for best actor two years in a row—for Captains Courageous and Boys Town.
Years later, the director Stanley Kramer said about Tracy in Boys Town:
I rank the Father Flanagan role as one of Spencer’s greatest….You knew that Father Flanagan was torn, the way Spencer played him. The priest could be just as tough as the kid he was trying to help…[and also] a messenger from God in a sense.
These are opposites. How much Spencer Tracy’s life would have been different if he could have learned from Aesthetic Realism that the opposites he put together so grandly in his acting—toughness and kindness, power and delicacy, intensity and thoughtfulness—could also make sense in his own life. The way he could be angry, go on a tear, and not want to think at all, pained him greatly. Swindell writes:
He lost control more and more frequently, with less and less provocation—he would blow up if someone took his spot in the studio parking lot. He was a bundle of nerves, so he yelled a great deal, and drank.
The actor Ralph Bellamy describes the pain that Spencer Tracy had when he was drinking:
He’d get even more mean and cantankerous than he usually was. Then he’d…disappear. A few days later…he’d always be overcome with remorse, and he’d try desperately to keep it from happening again. But it kept happening.
How I wish Spencer Tracy had been able to hear these sentences from Mr. Siegel’s lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Discomfort, which explain what he was in the midst of:
A good many…alcoholics think they haven’t been understood by their wives; they weren’t by their mothers; they aren’t understood by the world in general: the world puts out its tongue at them—why shouldn’t they go away from it? So they do. They feel they find more understanding looking at foam on beer than they do in their wife’s eyes….[A problem drinker] is one who, even though he has got away from the world, still maintains his anger and his confusion…
Anger and Love
Spencer Tracy, like most men, was pained in love. When he first met Louise Treadwell in 1923 he was affected by her good looks and said later about her: “I fell in love on the spot….She was a great lady, …all the things I wasn’t.” I believe there was a deep thoughtfulness and composure that Louise Treadwell had which Tracy felt he needed. But he could do no better with a woman than he did with the world itself; there was that in him which preferred to be angry. I believe he also used the unfortunate situation of his son John being born deaf to feel the world had dealt him a harsh blow. At home he was short-tempered and would often fly into a rage. In time, he and his wife grew distant from each other, and Louise Tracy once said, painfully: “I have to read the Hollywood trade papers to find out what Spencer is doing in his work.”
I am so grateful I am learning about love in classes taught by Ellen Reiss. A few months after I was married to Aesthetic Realism associate Lauren Phillips, I unfortunately felt what many men do—I resented that Lauren meant so much to me and I looked for ways to get angry with her. To have me understand this Ms. Reiss gave Lauren and me an assignment to write about a fight we had. We wrote about a disagreement we had about how much to spend on a pair of sneakers, in which I got very angry. Ms. Reiss asked me, “What do you think is the crucial thing in terms of the cause of this fight?”
Bruce Blaustein: I am not sure.
Ellen Reiss: Do you think you hope to be displeased with Lauren Phillips? That’s the central cause. Since you have married her you have shown a tremendous being for a person, and now you are going to show how displeased you are. Do you hope another person be as good as possible?…You feel now that you have a wife, you don’t have to treasure her. With all your affability, do you think there is a large desire in you to show the world is against you?
How grateful I am to Ms. Reiss for criticizing this in me. As husband and father I feel tremendously grateful that my wife and I can learn together what Aesthetic Realism shows is the purpose of love: to like the world. I need Lauren, and I am grateful to her for the criticism she has given me and encouragement to really care about what happens to other people.
A large thing in Spencer Tracy’s life was his relationship with Katharine Hepburn. I believe that in the movies they made together, something wonderful happened and people were affected by the way they put opposites together—delicacy and roughness, the sophisticated and the zany, anger and sweetness.
Katharine Hepburn encouraged Spencer Tracy to care more for art, music and literature. And she hints that she needed Tracy’s criticism. In his book Kate, Charles Higham, writes about how Tracy opposed Hepburn’s “actress egotism,” and quotes Katharine Hepburn as saying that sometimes: “[Spencer] rather smashes me down, and there’s something nice about me when I’m smashed down.” Apparently, he was angry at—criticized—things in her she didn’t like about herself, and she was grateful.
But there was also pain between them. In her book Me: Stories of My Life, there is anguish as Katharine Hepburn speaks to Spencer Tracy posthumously:
I was certainly yours. And you knew that you had someone you could depend on. But you would toss. And you would turn and turn and sigh. What is it?…Tortured by some sort of guilt. Was it that you couldn’t stand yourself?
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy needed the critical comprehension of Aesthetic Realism.
The True Anger That Makes Us Proud
“There is [a] kind of anger,” Eli Siegel writes in Self and World,
which is an honest, accurate…anger. When we have anger which comes from an awareness of ugliness, injustice, this anger we are proud of. It integrates us. We can look at it clearly, boldly, and like it. It is a beautiful anger.”
An instance of this in Spencer Tracy’s life was in 1945, when he was going to perform in Robert Sherwood’s play The Rugged Path, in Washington, D.C. “A special performance was arranged at the National Theater” [for the president]. Davidson writes:
…The problem was that the National Theater practiced a policy of racial segregation…and the wounded veterans were carefully screened as to race. Blacks were being excluded….Tracy flew into a massive fury when he found out about this. He flatly refused to [take part in the] performance.
Because of this, “the White House intervened…[and] the National’s segregation rules were suspended. Tracy went on as scheduled.” Spencer Tracy’s anger at the ugliness of racial prejudice was passionate and I am sure it strengthened his life.
But as his life went on, the fight between the two kinds of anger raged in him. When asked in 1961 if he felt he had changed over the years, Tracy answered: “I’ve become grouchier.” In the last years of his life, the insomnia that had afflicted him for so long tormented him. He took sleeping pills which would only work for three or four hours; then he would get up and stay up through the rest of the night, driving up and down the Pacific Coast Highway.
At this time, he read a great deal about Abraham Lincoln. I think this is because Abraham Lincoln was a person who was thoughtful, and also intensely, beautifully angry at injustice in the world, and this affected Spencer Tracy.
As Judge Haywood in Judgment at Nuremberg, which was one of Spencer Tracy’s favorite roles, he showed a beautiful anger as he played the judge who presides at the war crimes trial of four Nazi judges. He is pressured not to sentence them for fear of hurting the United States’ relationship with new German allies against the Soviet Union. Tracy’s character stands firm, and as he delivers a guilty verdict he says:
Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.
Later, he sent Abby Mann the writer of Judgement at Nuremberg, a telegram which read: “It was a great privilege to say those words [you wrote]. All I can say is if the lights go out now, I still win.“ He saw standing up for something beautiful as a victory for himself.
The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel must be known so persons can learn what to be truly angry at—in themselves and each other. When this happens, people will be proud!