from a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
True and False Care for Oneself in Love
One aspect of this novel which can be questioned is in how the author writes about love between Skeeter and a man she’s interested in. Aesthetic Realism explains the purpose of love is to like the world through being close to a person. Part of this is that a woman has to want a man to know her, to care for the deepest, best thing in her—her desire to be just to the world and people—and to be a critic of what in her is against that. And she has to want to do the same for him.
Like many women, I wanted to be adored, told I was wonderful, feeling then I would like myself—but it never worked. I began to learn what every woman needs to know: that love is a means of caring truly for oneself by seeing who another person is, how he represents the multitudinous world from which he comes.
This happened to me when I met Alan Shapiro—jazz pianist and music educator—who is now my husband. Through knowing him, the world affected me in new ways in the form of music; the suburbs of Philadelphia where he grew up; his students; the opposites of humor and seriousness, and much more. I soon found I was swept by him in a way I hadn’t expected. But I also felt scared that I was losing myself. Some days after Alan and I had an important conversation, when I saw him at a gathering with many people, I was agitated and walked right past him and out the door, not even acknowledging his presence. “How could I do that?” I said to myself. I felt bad and thought I should go back and apologize, but I couldn’t. I didn’t understand what was working in me. When I said in an Aesthetic Realism class that I was afraid of how much I was being affected by Alan, Ellen Reiss asked:
If you’re afraid of large feeling, do you think you see it as accurate? People can want to have the grand passion and prefer not to have it be exact. I think that you can be afraid that you won’t be proud of it because it’s not exact.
And she explained that a woman can also be afraid of having large emotion because it is exact, and she thinks it would affect her too much and she’d no longer be able to be aloof and superior. After this discussion a big change took place in me. I saw that in being honestly affected by Alan, I was actually more myself, not less!
In the novel when Skeeter Phelan meets Stuart Whitworth, she feels here at last is a man who will make much of her, tell her she’s wonderful. But while he praises her for speaking her mind, she feels she has to hide from him the thing she’s proudest of—her work on this book—afraid that he won’t like it, tell others, and could jeopardize the safety of the women she’s interviewing. She’s in a fight between wanting his approval and wanting to be honest. When she finally does tell him, he’s shocked and breaks up with her. And though she’s hurt, she does see that she can’t love a man who doesn’t care for the best, most ethical thing in her.
The Way of Seeing People that Takes Care of Us
After months of work, and deep education, Skeeter’s book, which is titled Help, is published—anonymously, and with all the maids’ names changed for protection. Still, they’re afraid that Hilly, who is exposed for the arrogant racist she is, will unleash her wrath on everyone involved. She’s already made Skeeter a pariah in their circle and in Jackson for becoming “an integrationist,” which she says as if it’s a curse.
Meanwhile, the book deeply affects the women of Jackson, including some of Skeeter’s friends. She comes to feel that the choice she’s made, trying to see these women more exactly, more fairly, has been the right choice.
It’s my opinion that because Aesthetic Realism shows that justice to others is the same as gloriously caring for ourselves, it is the hope of humanity. I end with this short poem by Eli Siegel, which I love, because it stands for that feeling:
The Inclusive Shiningness of Justice
She was brilliantly just to him.
She found out later she had been brilliantly just to everything.
Justice is that way.
Nothing shines more than justice,
Nothing is more inclusively shining than justice.