from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, with a discussion of Sophia Baines, a central character in Arnold Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’ Tale
I’m glad to speak tonight about a subject crucial for everyone: what it means to be important. Like many women, I thought I’d be important if I could have an unmistakably big effect on people—especially men. I felt triumphant when, after flirting with a man at the deli where I got my lunch, he winked, gave me a discount on my order, and threw in a little something extra. I told of this in an Aesthetic Realism consultation. “So,” my consultants asked, “you were flirting for economic reasons?” Meanwhile, I said, I felt guilty. The reason, I learned, was that, despite my seeming victory, I’d undermined my deepest hope. The importance I really wanted was not based on seeing people with contempt, as existing to serve and glorify me, but on seeing meaning, real import, in them.
Explained Mr. Siegel in his definitive lecture Mind and Importance:
If you are important because you feel what’s real is important, that other people can be important, and that you are important because you are a particular way of seeing those things; and if through the respect or importance you give yourself, you…give more meaning to what is not yourself—then your importance is good.
This way of seeing has given rise to everything beautiful in art and literature, every great scientific discovery, and every instance of kindness and justice from an individual person.
Mr. Siegel also describes the central mistake people make about importance: the feeling that “any time you say something is good or important which is not you, you are taking away from your unconscious bank account.” I felt this very much, as is clear from sentences I wrote on a wet January day when I was 15:
I’m most sure of myself on days like this. Snow, sleet, clouds, gray sky. It’s one way I feel above something, not inferior like I usually do. On days with springy, comfortable weather, the sun, birds, flowers seem to put me down, make me feel small and unnecessary. But today? I’m something!!
While I felt belittled by sunshine and spring weather, my “unconscious bank account” was filling up as I rose magnificently above the gloomy winter day.
Exactly five years after writing those sentences, I began learning from Aesthetic Realism how the reality I’d made dull and insignificant had meaning I hadn’t wanted to see, and I became more honestly sure of myself and so much happier. I felt I really mattered in this world.
Good & bad importance: some early instances
“Every time we make ourselves truly important,” said Mr. Siegel, “we are making something besides ourselves important, whether we know it or not.” This describes what I was doing when, at age 6, I read over and over this poem from my favorite book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses—“Rain”: “The rain is raining all around, / It falls on field and tree, / It rains on the umbrellas here, / And on the ships at sea.” So differently from the way I later exploited the wet weather for bad importance, I loved imagining people all over the world affected by rain. Reality as warmly close and as wide seemed beautiful to me.
Another instance of my feeling truly important occurred when Mrs. Mazo told our 5th grade class at Brooklyn’s PS 212 that she was having a baby. We loved our teacher, and met after school to plan a celebration. We chose popular songs to sing, like “Chapel of Love,” and “Navy Blue,” and I helped choreograph dances to go with them. We wanted to show how important Mrs. Mazo was to us, and she was moved.
But I was in a huge fight between being important through caring for things, importing their meaning into myself—and other, hurtful ways. At home, I was often willful and defiant, and with other people I was generally insular and unexpressive. This was, Mr. Siegel explains, a way “of being important unconsciously[:] by showing no feeling, maintaining a poker face, going about as if you were a sociological desert with no rain.” When my parents showed they were worried about me, I’d say I was FINE but also felt I was important because of their concern.
I got various kinds of importance from my parents. My father cared very much about happenings in the news. When I asked him about an event I wanted to understand, he showed he respected my desire to know. But I’d also feel special as he seemed to like spending time with just me, playing paddleball or visiting odd-lot stores in lower Manhattan. At other times, when he’d be intensely angry, I felt powerful in coldly ignoring him.
I used my mother for importance too. When I was 12, she went back to work after having stayed home to care for my younger sister, Ronnie, and me. Watching Ronnie after school and learning to cook gave me a proud sense of responsibility. But I missed another kind of importance—that of my mother being home to serve and comfort me. I didn’t care that she wanted, as many women do, to have meaning not only as a wife and mother, but also for her knowledge and ability to be useful to people besides us. I didn’t see how proud she felt earning a salary when she resumed her work as a bookkeeper. “We need to see that other people are just as important to themselves as we are to ourselves,” explained Mr. Siegel: “We need to be able to cope with that fact and not feel depressed.”
In my selfish desire to be the most important thing to my mother, I didn’t want to cope with it, and was sulky, depressed, and angry something else mattered so much to her. She’d often have to leave work to pick me up because the school nurse called, saying I had a sore throat or stomach ache. Visits to the doctor rarely showed anything physically wrong, but I had my mother home with me, on my terms. I regret how mean I was.
Studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned that my feeling my parents existed to make me important—and if they didn’t, I had a right to see and treat them any way I wanted—affected badly how I saw all people. This happened very much with boys and later men. In junior high, when first Steve and then Greg wanted to walk with me, I was excited; I felt: finally, boys were paying attention to me. Then I found that they wanted to talk to me about the girl they both liked—my best friend Debbie—and I was wounded. But I soon turned this into a distinction: I would be the wise counselor who helped people with their problems. Meanwhile, I felt like a fraud: Who was I to give advice about relationships when I was so mixed up myself?!
Around that time, I began to have what I called a “waking dream” at bed-time when I’d go into a world I created where I was supremely important. A large, dark warehouse-like room had dozens of cots hanging from the ceiling—the nighttime resting places of people I wanted to need me: boys I liked from afar, and famous actors or singers, like Davy Jones of the then-popular group the Monkees. I’d float from one cot to another like a benevolent angel, ministering to the occupants’ every need: a glass of water, first-aid, a pillow, a soothing conversation, for all of which they’d humbly express their undying gratitude to me.
I began to understand what I’d been going after in this dream when, in a class, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Which do you prefer, looking up to people or looking down on them?” Clearly, imagining all these important people needing me, making me superior to them, showed I wanted to look down on them contemptuously. The problem with this kind of importance, explained Mr. Siegel, “is that we deny importance elsewhere.”
That I’m now glad to see meaning in people—my friends and family; my husband, jazz pianist and music teacher Alan Shapiro; the students in the English classes I taught for many years using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—and in things, makes me very grateful for what I’ve learned and continue to learn!
A fictional woman’s mistakes about importance
Sophia Baines is one of the central characters in the 1908 novel The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. Bennett is important as novelist because he sees great importance, large meaning, in the day-to-day life and feelings of people—here, two ordinary women. Mr. Siegel said Arnold Bennett “is one of the persons who made reality beautiful with his novels about the Five Towns, particularly The Old Wives’ Tale.”
Bursley, where the novel is set, is one of these small, provincial towns in England. We meet Sophia in 1840 when she’s 15 and her sister Constance 16. They live above their father’s draper’s shop. Because Mr. Baines is an invalid who’s had a stroke, his wife runs the shop. Sophia is “splendidly beautiful” and uses this to feel very important. Bennett writes:
The confident and fierce joy of youth shone on her brow. “What thing on earth equals me?” she seemed to demand with enchanting and yet ruthless arrogance.
But Sophia also longs to be stirred by the large world. When Mrs. Baines tells her daughters they’re old enough to leave school and help out in the shop, Sophia is devastated: she cares for knowledge and wants to be a teacher. I know from my own happy career the true importance a teacher can feel wanting others to see meaning, wonder in the facts of reality. I felt this as my high school students came to value the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Steinbeck, Yeats, Millay—and felt more truly expressed through their own writing. But when Sophia’s parents are against her decision, her teacher, Miss Chetwynd, comes to her aid. She tells Mrs. Baines her daughter would make a very good teacher, even saying she’d do well in London—an idea that shocks the provincial mother. Miss Chetwynd persuades Mrs. Baines to allow Sophia to be apprenticed to her, and she becomes a dedicated student.
But as with many girls, Sophia’s feeling important through learning has competition. One day, sitting by her father’s bedside, she sees out the window “the very symbol and incarnation of the masculine and the elegant” headed for the shop. Desperate to meet this young salesman, she runs downstairs. In Bennett’s lively prose we can hear the breathless excitement, self-glorification, and inner turbulence of a young woman as she thinks about a man:
[Sophia’s] beautiful face was transfigured into the ravishingly angelic….Remarkable that Mr. Gerald Scales, with all his experience, should have had to come to Bursley to find the pearl, the paragon, the ideal!…
She was drunk; thoughts were tumbling about in her brain like cargo loose in a rolling ship….The thought which knocked hardest against its fellows was, ‘Only in these moments have I begun to live!’
But in her elation, she forgets about her father, making his delicate health and near-immobility irrelevant. While she’s downstairs, he’s slipped from his sitting position and—with his head hanging off the bed, unable to breathe—has died. She is tortured, crying “‘Why did I forget father?’ She would never be able to persuade anybody that she had literally forgotten her father’s existence for quite ten minutes; but it was true, though shocking.”
Even with this tragedy on her conscience, Sophia sneaks out to meet Gerald Scales. The best thing in her sees reality as large and wonderful through this worldly man who’s lived abroad. But she also makes the mistake countless women have made: feeling that he’s the only thing that matters, and that his adoration makes her supremely important. Explains Mr. Siegel:
People have a disproportionate sense of self, so they are disproportionate about self when they are in love. But the selfishness sometimes can be of such a kind that you give too much to the other person.
Sophia does give too much to Gerald Scales, making him much better than he really is, and she runs off to Paris with him.
Mistakes about importance in love
Commenting on the origin of the word “important,” Mr. Siegel said: “An important thing is that which carries much to us.” In love that’s the real thing, we feel another person carries to us the meaning of the rich, diverse world. I had this hope, but also wanted to keep myself intact, in control of how much things affected me. And so, when I was asked in an early consultation, “Are you distressed about the men question?” I answered coolly—and insincerely—“Not terribly, but somewhat.” “Do you think to say you’re really concerned about men gives them too much importance?,” my consultants asked, “—they don’t deserve to be so important that they can be a major cause of pain to yourself?”
This was true. I also made the mistake of feeling that, after what I saw as an exciting first date, I’d made an indelible—and, of course, wonderful—impression on a man, confident he’d want to see me as soon and as much as possible. He’d promise to meet me or drive me somewhere—but he wouldn’t show up. Once, I waited for a man for hours—sure he’d be there any minute—then finally gave up, humiliated. I swore I’d never be so stupid again, but I was, many times—and made the mistake of cherishing each disappointment like a jewel, feeling important in being unappreciated.
By the time I began seeing Alan Shapiro, I’d changed a lot, but was still “quick on the insult button,” ready to be hurt. In a class, I said I objected to how Alan said “Uh huh” when we talked on the phone, feeling he wasn’t listening to me. Ms. Reiss asked:
Do you see this as the insult supreme or as instancing humanity? Do you think a woman will have less of a tendency to get hurt by a man if she feels the thing that’s going to make her important is to be fair to him, rather than his making much of her?
I’m grateful that, in our nearly 12 years of marriage, I’ve been learning to be a friend to Alan, whom I love very much. I’m happy trying to know how he sees things that are important to him—music, his family, his students, his past. We’re closer with every year, and feel, through what we’re learning, that our marriage is part of culture.
In the novel, Sophia sees with real self-criticism that her marriage was a “monstrous folly”—that as she basked in Gerald’s flattery, she’d deluded herself. “Her brilliant and godlike husband” is self-indulgent—drinking, spending money recklessly, flirting with other women. To ensure he doesn’t leave her penniless, she takes some money from him one night when he’s drunk, sewing it safely into the hem of her skirt. After a fierce argument, he storms out, never to return. She is 24 years old.
She becomes seriously ill, and recovers with the help of several people, including a kind friend of Gerald’s, M. Chirac. Now she must find a way to make a living, and becomes the concierge of a Paris rooming house, at which she’s very successful. Shrewd and economical, she’s proud of her desire to have her pension absolutely respectable. Her male tenants, writes Bennett:
regard her as the paragon and miracle of women…: a young and elegant creature, surpassingly beautiful, proud,… unapproachable, …a marvelous manager, a fine cook,…utterly exact.
We admire Sophia for taking on this work with no experience, and for doing it well. A woman can rightly pride herself on her efficiency, and I have, but I think Sophia felt somewhat as I did—that as I was efficient, I wasn’t warm enough to people. When I said this in a class, Ms. Reiss asked:
If you see yourself as very efficient, do you think it’s accompanied often by seeing others as inept? [Is there the feeling:] “If I left this to other people, it would be a mess”?
Hearing this contempt described so clearly made me want to be completely different!
Though Sophia has based her importance on her career as a concierge, she still hopes for love. Chirac has been kind to her, and when he approaches her fervently, “She wanted to yield to him, only liking him, and to love afterwards.” But she’s uncomfortable with his ardor, his making her more important than the rest of the world. She wonders:
Did she feel pleased or displeased by his forbearance in not renewing the assault?…She did not know.…Only, she conceived a different kind of love: placid, regular, somewhat stern, somewhat above the plane of whims, moods, caresses, and all mere fleshly contacts.
The way Arnold Bennett describes Sophia’s hope and confusion about love is part of why we feel she stands for women everywhere.
After decades of running hotels, Sophia returns to Bursley and her sister Constance. And the author has us feel that these two sisters, with all the ways life has changed them, still have in them the lively young women we met many years ago.
As novelist, Arnold Bennett is important. His writing shows that, as Eli Siegel explained: “The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form.” Because of the fullness, the subtlety, the rich withinness of how Bennett describes Sophia, we feel she’s pulsatingly real, and we care for her.
Aesthetic Realism shows with beautiful and hopeful clarity: We are truly important when we want to see the world and other people as MATTERING—as having meaning that adds to who we are. “If we make ourselves important in a way that looks lovely to us,” said Mr. Siegel, “that is not unfair to anyone else—that is what life wants.” And that is what everyone’s life can have through the study of Aesthetic Realism.