At 19, feeling dull and empty, I decided to join a friend who was going to France. I thought I’d be awakened by the landscapes of Brittany and the energy of Paris, and hoped to be moved by the country’s rich culture. Yet with all I saw, I felt something of what Coleridge describes in these lines from “Dejection: an Ode”: “I see them all so excellently fair; / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are.” I was worried, and felt I’d always be numb to the people and things around me. Then, within weeks of my return, I attended an Aesthetic Realism seminar, and embarked on the great education that would enable me to have large feeling I could be proud of. “The first thing necessary in feeling good,” Eli Siegel explained in a lecture, “ is to want to feel. Most persons are not aware that they do not want to feel. They don’t ask the meaning of the term: What is it to feel something?”
“To feel something,” I learned, is to respond to reality—to the things we meet. Said Mr. Siegel:
The biggest feeling that we want to have, the feeling of feelings, is that we like the fact that the combination of ourselves and the world can be a cause of gratification on both sides.
And I learned about the thing in everyone that also wants to feel this world isn’t good enough to cause a response in us. This lessening of feeling, which comes from the lessening of meaning, is contempt, and when we go after it, we are less alive.
I’ll describe tonight how my life has flourished as I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism about this debate in me. I’ll also speak about a courageous Latin American woman whose feeling about having justice come to people was so large, she has become a beloved national heroine.
“Real knowledge helps one’s feelings”
“If one knows more,” asked Mr. Siegel,
what happens to one’s feelings? Real knowledge always helps one’s feelings, because where feeling isn’t rich it is not complete, and the only way to have feeling rich is to get that material which is in learning.
As a child in Brooklyn, I loved reading and was affected by the words and colorful pictures in the Golden Books I had—including Nurse Nancy, whom I admired for her feeling about helping people get well. I had pleasure learning how the 9 times table had both constancy and surprise.
Yet so often, I was determined not to show I had feeling about things—for or against. When something bothered me or made me angry, I felt it was weak to show it could get to me. This was also true with things I liked. When the Beatles appeared on tv, and I watched the show with my friends, they screamed with pleasure, but I felt they were silly and excessive, and inwardly mocked them. And though I enjoyed watching my parents’ graceful steps and dips as they danced, I appeared unaffected. To admit I liked what others liked was a comedown, as I saw it. I had discrimination—and I felt it was crass to show emotion.
I learned: when we don’t want to show our feeling, it’s because we’re in a fight about how much we want to have it in the first place. “In order to feel good,” Mr. Siegel explained, “we have to feel much. You cannot really feel good if you are trying to feel a little rill, a little dripping that is safe. The human mind is not made for it.” I did try to be “safe” by limiting my feeling, and wore a blank expression—but more and more, I felt blank myself.
The debate about feeling showed in me when I became interested in boys. I say “interested”—but to observe me, you’d never have known it. In 3rd grade, I liked Danny Forrester; he was friendly, handsome, and smart. I wished there were some magical way he could know I liked him so I wouldn’t have to tell him. He just didn’t seem to get the message by my poker face. Then, we moved and I didn’t see him again until I was 15. When he greeted me at a party, I said in a cool tone that belied my agitation, “Do I know you?” “What an idiot!,” I thought, but I’d be damned if I said anything.
Studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations, as I saw new meaning in things and in people, I had much more feeling about both; I also hoped to be close to a man. Yet my debate about how much feeling I should have showed when I was asked, “Are you distressed about the men question?” “Not terribly, but somewhat.” “Do you think to say that you’re really concerned about men gives them too much importance?” my consultants asked. I did!
The exciting education I’ve received has shown me that having feeling about another person, welcoming his meaning, is real strength and pride; it has made for my happy marriage to Alan Shapiro, jazz pianist, music teacher and Aesthetic Realism associate.
Deep feeling about justice in Latin America
In 1926, in the town of Ojo de Agua in the Dominican Republic, a girl was born who would become a force in ending one of the most brutal regimes in history. She is Minerva Mirabal, and as I’ve read about her—mainly through two Spanish-language biographies—I’ve come to respect her tremendously. She worked with two of her sisters, their husbands, and others to end the rule of President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. They were so effective, this dictator determined to get rid of the Mirabal sisters, and in 1960, they were mysteriously killed. Called by their code name, “las mariposas”—the butterflies—they’ve become better known around the world through the novel based on their lives by Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies.
Minerva was the third of four daughters of Mercedes and Enrique Mirabal. Her father was a successful agricultural businessman, and the family was affluent. Biographer Miguel Aquino García says their social status and prosperity “made it improbable [that] a torch of light against the relentless tyranny” of the regime would arise in their home—but that’s just what happened.
What were her feelings about: for and against?
The Trujillo government, which began in 1930, represents in a national form what Ellen Reiss describes in TRO as the
enormous desire in everyone, to have nothing contradict us, to have everyone and everything behave as we please….This desire to squelch anything that ruffles our ego has a correlative in the political field. It is what fascism, for example, has gone for: the making sure there is no dissent, that everyone behaves the way the person or persons heading the government desire.
If you go after this kind of power over people, you can’t have feeling about what they deserve. Historian Frank Moya Pons describes how Trujillo gained “total control of every economic enterprise…in the country,” and amassed a personal fortune. While calling himself the Benefactor of the Nation, he “used his army to impose his will on [the people], using…terror, torture, and assassination” to ensure there was no dissent. When, at 10, Minerva learned that a classmate’s father had been killed for being involved in a plot to overthrow the president, she had what she called her “first conscious feeling of hate for and rebellion against” Trujillo.
As a child, Minerva loved reading; a favorite activity was reciting poems she’d memorized. She spent hours in the lush gardens outside their home and cared for animals. Even then, she had deep feeling about freedom, which every living being deserves. One day, as she was playing with a pet heron she cared for, it flew off. Knowing his daughter would be sad, Enrique tried to console her, telling her to forget the bird; it was ungrateful to leave after having received such affection from her. But she replied, sobbing, “Even herons love liberty!”
And a school friend tells that when Minerva, whose life was privileged, saw how much the people of her nation endured, she cried, saying “she had never realized that people lived so poorly.”
It is said she had an “insatiable avidity for information.” She read voraciously—literature and poetry, and also books about politics and sociology. Among her favorite authors were novelists Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, poets Pablo Neruda and Rubén Darío, and Mahatma Gandhi, the eminent leader of the opposition to British Imperialsm in India. She met people who’d fought in the Spanish Civil War and told her of its meaning; she learned of the international fight against oppression; she listened to illegal radio transmissions
for news generated in other lands, especially Venezuela and Cuba, where she would surely have more chance to learn the reality that existed in her own country.
The debate about feeling in a woman and a nation
By her early 20s, Minerva was beautiful—tall and slender, with short black hair and an olive complexion—and, said a close friend, “When [she] arrived somewhere you immediately felt her presence; her imposing personality attracted everyone right away.” Yet, while many men made advances, she said she was not ready for romance. According to a friend, her dedication to learning about the fight for justice around the world and in her own country “was absolute and complete.”
The one man who did affect her at this time was Perícles Franco, a medical student who’d returned from exile in Chile to fight against Trujillo, and was closely watched by the police. It seems their relationship was not a romantic one, yet Perícles Franco himself said that there was between Minerva and him an “intensity of affection…and of mutual interest.” According to biographer William Galván, friends said that “the thing that really attracted her to [him] was his…opposition to the regime.”
I think it’s very likely that Minerva Mirabal was worried that if she were in a more intimate relation with a man at this time, he might not respect the things she valued most in herself—her mind and her passion for justice—and might have her be untrue to her large purpose.
Her reasons for not having to do with a man closely for some time had a much more ethical basis than mine did. When I first met Alan Shapiro, I was stirred by our conversations; I also saw these new feelings made me uncomfortable. In an Aesthetic Realism class, I said I was afraid of how much feeling I could have for Alan, and Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked, “Is it good news or bad news that a person can have meaning for you?” I said tentatively, “Good news.” “If you’re afraid of large feeling,” she asked, “do you think you see it as accurate?” I didn’t. She continued:
Do you hope to be as exact as you can and also have the largest emotion exactitude can make for? I think you can be afraid you won’t be proud of it because it’s not exact. You can also be afraid of having large emotion because it is exact, and it would get you.
I saw that both were true. The picture of myself I’d carefully arranged was being broken up. Also, I was afraid I’d be more interested in being made important by a man than in being exact about who he truly is, and that I’d use having more feeling about him to have less feeling for other people and things.
This discussion, with its beautiful logic, had me see I could be the same person having feeling about Alan and looking at the structure of a poem, or preparing lessons for my high school English classes. I’m proud to say I love my husband for his kindness, his humor, his energetic way of meeting the world, and his friendly criticism. I’m grateful that, as we study together in Aesthetic Realism classes, we are having greater feeling, including about the need for justice to people.
Minerva Mirabal clearly had large feeling about her country and its people, and had close friends, but was there that in her that didn’t want to be affected deeply by one man? And might she also have been afraid for a good reason, related to what Ellen Reiss said to me—worried her feeling might be inexact, and might have her be untrue to her large purpose?
The lives of the Mirabals changed forever one night in 1949 when they reluctantly accepted Trujillo’s express invitation to a party in his honor. Earlier, Trujillo, whose quest for power included conquering young women, had fixed his eyes on Minerva. Though at first she declined his invitation to dance with him, she knew she’d put her family in peril if she refused. He tried to seduce her, and though aware of the risk, she objected. She also boldly asked him to leave Perícles Franco alone.
Furious that he couldn’t conquer her, and also that she had political ideas opposed to his, he began a campaign of revenge. It was unwritten law that no one could leave a gathering before Trujillo did. The day after the party, Enrique Mirabal was ordered to send a telegram of apology for having violated this “law” when, fearing the repercussions of Minerva’s encounter with Trujillo, he took his family home early. Frightened, he sent the telegram. Nevertheless, he was imprisoned. Minerva was also told to write a letter apologizing to Trujillo; she refused. When the police found letters to her from Pericles Franco, she too was imprisoned, along with her mother.
Again and again over the next decade, Trujillo tried to get revenge on Minerva and her family—by threats, imprisonments, trying to prevent Minerva from pursuing a university education, and more. The Mirabals were hardly the only ones who suffered, yet their well-known situation highlights the growing feeling of discontent in the nation, and Trujillo’s increasingly brutal use of the secret police to eliminate any opposition and to maintain his power.
In 1953, just after the death of her father, Minerva met Manolo Tavarez, a fellow law student. Evidence that she wasn’t sure how much feeling she should have for him is in Manolo’s comment that, during their courtship, she was “a pineapple that wasn’t easy to peel.” Yet she was affected by his knowledge and tenderness, and also by his passionate objection to the regime, and a year later, they were married. It seems there were difficult times in their marriage, but their large purpose on behalf of justice made for a feeling of deep mutual respect.
Three important events occurred in Minerva’s life between 1956 and 1958—the birth of her and Manolo’s two children, and in between, her graduation with a law degree. With this, Trujillo’s personal animosity emerged again: though he’d finally allowed her to study law, he wouldn’t grant her a license to practice. She could easily have used this to think, “Why should I work so hard? Why have all this feeling?” Instead, she used it to strengthen her desire to have the people of her country truly free.
My aim is not to describe the last years of the Trujillo regime, but to show how Minerva Mirabal represents in an important way the fact that as we have more feeling about what people deserve, we are more. She said: “It is a source of happiness to do whatever can be done for our country that suffers so many anguishes; it is sad to stay with one’s arms crossed.”
In 1959, Minerva, Manolo, and many others—including her sisters Maria Teresa and Patria and their husbands—were heartened by the fact that elsewhere in Latin America, people were successfully opposing oppressive regimes. She suggested that they organize their efforts to do the same in the Dominican Republic. Entrusting her children to the care of friends and relatives, Minerva now devoted her energy to ending the dictatorship of Trujillo. Galván writes, “There was no task too difficult or dangerous.”
And even the Catholic Church, which had earlier supported the regime, now outwardly opposed it. In mid-1960, an angry Trujillo said: “I have two problems that I haven’t been able to solve: the Priests and the Mirabal sisters.” What he felt is described in these sentences by Ellen Reiss:
If our sense of our own power is opposed to other human beings’ getting what they deserve…and if we want to protect our power, we will play fast and free with truth, and also with human lives.
And so, Trujillo set in motion the machinery that would end the lives of these brave women, who were loved throughout the country. They and their husbands were imprisoned again, the men in a jail notorious for torture. Soon after the sisters’ release, Minerva was diagnosed with a form of tuberculosis. Yet despite her physical weakness, and also economic hardship, she continued to go with her sisters to visit their husbands in prison.
On November 25, 1960, on their way back from one visit, Trujillo’s agents stopped their Jeep, forced them and their driver out, and beat them to death. Their bodies were put back into the Jeep, which was then pushed over the side of a mountain. Word of this “accident” spread through the countryside and into the cities; everyone knew the Mirabal sisters had been assassinated. This event finally turned the tide in the Dominican people’s war against Trujillo. The regime lasted just six months more. In honor of them, the day of the Mirabal sisters’ death has been proclaimed “International Day against Violence towards Women” by the UN and is celebrated in many Latin American nations.
The large feeling about justice that Minerva Mirabal had was encouraged by her love for poetry. Poetry, Eli Siegel showed, comes from a feeling about reality that is both deep and exact. And so I end my paper with lines by a poet she cared for, Pablo Neruda, which represent the kind of feeling for people that can make a person proud. They are from a translation of his poem: “La Gran Alegría”—“Great Happiness”:
I write for the people, even though they cannot
read my poetry with their rustic eyes.
The moment will come in which a line, the air
that stirred my life, will reach their ears,
and then the farmer will raise his eyes,
the miner will smile breaking stones,
the brakeman will wipe his brow,
the fisherman will see clearly the glow
of a quivering fish that will burn his hands,
the mechanic, clean, recently washed,
smelling of soap will see my poems,
and perhaps they will say: “He was a friend.”