from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, including a discussion of the short story “The Last Leaf,” by O. Henry
Throughout history, people have admired women who had a beautiful determination, such as Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie—women who used their thought and energy to do good for the world and other people. Their determination arose from what Aesthetic Realism shows is the greatest purpose anyone can have: good will—defined by Eli Siegel as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
Yet women also have a kind of determination that comes from a completely different source, the feeling: “What I want, what serves me and makes me important is the only thing that matters, and I’ll stop at nothing till I get my way.” And even if we get what we’re after, this determination is wrong, because it is in behalf of contempt—“the desire to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self”—and this is the greatest weakener of a woman’s life. As I know from intense personal experience, this kind of determination makes us mean and has us feel empty and disgusted with ourselves.
I describe here some of what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, in consultations and classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, about various forms of feminine determination: defiance, an insistence on feeling hurt, the drive to have a man make me important. As these have been kindly criticized in me, I’ve changed, and now have a happy, fortunate life—as a woman, wife, teacher, friend. I will also speak about two kinds of determination in a keen, moving American short story.
A child’s determination: right and wrong
Growing up in Brooklyn, I had the fight everyone has between hoping to see meaning in things and wanting to have contempt. Very early, I was interested in words and language. Eli Siegel explained that words are “the results of a successful love of objects,” and came to be because of a deep determination in people to have the outside world permanently in our minds and the desire to express ourselves. I loved learning to read, and was excited to begin French in elementary school. Then, and later as I studied other languages, I had great pleasure working to learn new words and pronounce them correctly.
I was also determined to wring as much praise as I could from the adults I knew. Though I wanted this from both my parents, my mother wasn’t as silly about me as my father sometimes seemed. When he took me to work and showed me off as his sweet, well-behaved little girl, I felt powerful when his co-workers fawned over me, with my auburn ringlets and pretty dresses. But the father who was adoring at times like these was, more often, explosive or distant and, I felt, uncaring. In my first consultation, I was asked: “Do you think the way your father is two people has angered you?” Yes, it had. A child can rightly object to her parents’ doubleness, but I exploited my confusion to feel I’d be smart to depend only on myself, and had the triumphant determination Mr. Siegel describes in these lines from his poem “Twenty-One Distichs about Children”:
As much as little Alice was unknown,
She thought, I’m in myself and just my own.
I could go far away in my mind and be oblivious to what was going on around me. And while I was “obedient” when it paid, I felt I was my own boss, and no one was going to tell me what to do. Once, when I was 3 or 4, my mother was trying to get me ready to go out and I wouldn’t let her put on my shoes. She said sharply, “Give me your foot!” “Take it!” I answered. My stubborn insistence on having my way became family legend; there’s a story of my mother hearing me say one morning, as I sat on my bed and listed aloud the events of the day: “First we get up, then we get dressed, then we eat breakfast—no, first we get up, then we get yelled at, then we get dressed.”
In my teens, I coolly ignored my father when he asked me, for instance, to bring him some water or do the dishes, and inwardly mocked him for blowing up while I was unperturbed. My consultants asked: “Do you like to defy people?” I had. “What good does it do you?” I wasn’t sure, and they explained: “When we defy someone we feel we’re somebody. We’re not wishy-washy. But do you like the way you defy, and the reasons for it?” No, I didn’t. Defiance can come from a passionate determination to fight injustice, but mine was not so noble: it came from disdain for reality, and a determination to have myself to myself. However, my consultants explained, “One disadvantage of this kind of defiance is: we can’t stop it when we want to.” I had loved reading, but found myself unable to finish books: I’d stop when I met a difficult passage that made me think more than I felt I should have to. I wanted to make friends, but would blurt out things that would push people away. As time went on, I became increasingly worried about how my mind was working, and was terrifically lonely.
The determination to be hurt
Aesthetic Realism explains that when we’re determined to have our way through contempt, we’ll work to justify feeling things are against us. I often acted hurt by something or someone; I never got the breaks, as I saw it; I felt left out, and that no one saw my value. Yet with all my pain, secretly I enjoyed feeling slighted, because then I felt I was right in keeping to myself.
“Once you are looking for disappointment,” said Mr. Siegel, “you can be a super-FBI.” I was! I was adept at turning any situation into an affront. If someone pulled out a chair for me, it was because he thought I was incapable of doing it myself. I reduced people, with whole lives and deep feelings, into beings whose sole purpose was to lessen me. I didn’t see how unkind, and also how self-defeating this was, stopping me from feeling close to anyone.
This was especially true with men. I yearned for love, for someone to tell me I was wonderful. Meanwhile, I acted as if no man suited me, and thought: “Who needs them, anyway?” They got the message! “The problem that a girl has,” writes Mr. Siegel in his essay “Medusa Is a Nice Girl”:
is whether self-maintenance is negation or inclusiveness….There is something in everyone making “Don’t come closer” or “Don’t touch me” seem the wisest and most representative thing of that person.
I began to understand this fight in myself when I was asked in a consultation if the way I went after my father’s praise while scorning him had made me unsure of myself as to men. I saw that what I’d been looking for from a man—to have him make me regal while I reserved the right to dismiss him—was like what I’d gone after with my father, Barney Rosen. As I changed my purpose with him, and really wanted to know how he saw himself, his past, his work, and more—I came to have a new respect for men. Meanwhile, there was more I needed to see. I still felt what I was missing was a man who saw my good qualities and would praise me in just the right, sensitive way, and I wasn’t hopeful about love. In a class some years ago, Ellen Reiss asked me: “What would you rather do, say there’s more for you to see, or despair?” I said, “I’ve preferred despair,” and she continued:
It’s a wonderful way of not having to see any more. “I know no one is going to care for me. Other women may be able to speak to a man a certain way, but I know I’ll never have the chance.” It’s the same as putting a crown on your head.
This was true, and I love Ms. Reiss for showing that my insistence on despair was insincere, a form of contempt, and such a waste of time! Through this and other discussions I felt much more hopeful. Now, I am proud to say I am deeply in love with a man—Alan Shapiro, music educator and jazz pianist, who is my husband. And our education happily continues.