Here’s a paper by my colleague Aesthetic Realism consultant Bennett Cooperman on a subject that affects men—& women too. The paper includes a discussion of Jack London’s classic novel The Call of the Wild.
Every man wants to feel he’s strong—that he’s sharp, can take care of himself and not be pushed around. We also want to have large feelings, be swept by the beauty and honesty of a woman, the grandeur of a sunset.
Can we have both toughness and big feelings, can we be strong and tender, even sensitive? I’ve seen the answer is yes, and the thing that makes it possible is the purpose Aesthetic Realism shows is our deepest: to know and like the world. When we have a steady desire to see the facts, it makes us keen, intellectually solid, and it is also the very thing that enables a man to be moved, affected, to have the feelings he wants. And “the greatest feeling,” Eli Siegel wrote, “is the feeling that we are getting along with the world in general.”
That is in fierce competition with the drive in a man to see the world as an antagonist he has to beat. This is contempt, and it makes for a kind of toughness that’s dangerous and hurts our lives tremendously. Mr. Siegel described where this begins when he wrote:
It can carefully be said that people are in a constant contest between the desire to feel more and the desire to feel as little as possible. It happens that with every disappointment in life, there is some desire to feel less…According to Aesthetic Realism, there is a great tendency to get distinction from the fact that the world is not on our side.
1. Friend or Enemy?
I grew up in Miami Shores, Florida, down the block from Biscayne Bay. And all the time I had the debate Aesthetic Realism shows is in everyone: between feeling the world was a friend, something to care for and have feeling about, or an enemy against which I had to make myself tough and hard.
One place the world seemed friendly was at the home of the Henrys, a couple from England who lived on our block. I loved to hear them talk with their British accents. They had five dogs, and one became pregnant. When the puppies were born and I got the call to come over, I was so excited, and felt a sense of awe seeing these little beings who, hours before, were inside the mother, now outside, whimpering and with their eyes closed. I was amazed, too, that the mother knew instinctively just what to do to take care of her babies.
Right along with that feeling of wonder, I often felt something else: the world was a cold place and people would rook you if they had the chance. Once, a friend in the neighborhood, Jimmy Bickow, wanted me to teach him to climb a tree, which I could do well. I asked him to hold onto my pack of gum, and when I got up into the tree, I looked down in disbelief as Jimmy ran off with my gum. “Creep!” I thought, and later I had a smug victory when Jimmy opened his front door, and my mother and I were there to reclaim my precious gum.
That stands for many choices I unknowingly made to feel that people were out for themselves, and you better be damn smart and tough if you weren’t going to be a sap. Though I cultivated an outward “nice guy” manner, inwardly I was calculating. At work, I plotted very carefully how to have a boss depend on me more than my co-workers, and saw myself as pretty tough in navigating the treacherous corporate waters.
Aesthetic Realism shows there is a crucial distinction about our toughness: is it in behalf of justice, like the toughness of persons who fought the Nazis in World War II? Or is it in behalf of putting someone in his place, so you can be superior? The second always weakens us.
Toughness and honest wonder were in a stir in me some years ago when, for a dramatic presentation here of Eli Siegel’s great lecture on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I was rehearsing for the role of Huck. I had a noticeable tendency to make this young boy from Missouri, who some-times speaks, as Mr. Siegel said, in sentences that are “aromatic with wonder” —I made make him sound like a street-wise teenager from the Bronx.
When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss said: “Huck Finn doesn’t want the wool to be pulled over his eyes, and he also wants to be true to everything romantic. Do you have a hard time putting the two together?” Yes, I did. Ms. Reiss continued, and what she said described my whole life: “Your toughness, street-wiseness and calculation is not at one with your sense of awe, the grand feeling.”
Hearing this described so clearly, I began to know myself better. “You are a keen, sharp person,” she said, “but you also want to see a sunrise.”
At the time of this discussion, I was seeing the woman who, I’m very grateful to say is now my wife, Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman. After having a lot of feeling about her, I would find myself becoming cool in ways I didn’t understand. Miss Reiss asked:
ER: Do you like the idea of feeling wonder about Ms. Nietsch?
BC: I think I’m too suspicious.
ER: You should be suspicious of it’s warranted. But Mr. Siegel was intense about a person hoping to be suspicious. That is always ugly. Have you hoped to be suspicious of Ms. Nietsch?
I’ve seen that it is urgent for a man to know about that hope to be suspicious. It’s what has him hunt like a detective for the flaw in the very woman he loves, thinking he’s tough; has a husband focus in on the dish she left in the sink, and then not know why he later feels flat and ashamed. It ruins love, and Aesthetic Realism is kind and necessary in having us learn about it, so we can criticize it and change. That’s a good toughness—being able to criticize cheapness in oneself straight, and be different.
2. Toughness and Feeling in a Popular Novel
The Call of the Wild by Jack London puts together movingly rugged toughness with a feeling heart in many ways we can learn from. First serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903, the novel helped to make London, according to one website, “the most popular American author of his time.”
I believe the book brings up what Mr. Siegel said in a 1949 lecture, Poetry and Strength, explaining that when a person feels he is “sensitive”:
The first thing he wants to say is “Oh, I’m sensitive; therefore I’m not strong.” One might as well say that if an eye sees a lot it isn’t a strong eye, or if an ear hears a lot is isn’t a strong ear. The question is: what is the purpose of a human being? Is it to feel, and if sensitivity is allied to feeling, then certainly to feel is to be strong.
The Call of the Wild is about a powerful dog, Buck, half St. Bernard and half sheepdog. Jack London writes from Buck’s point of view with depth and subtlety, and presents such a rich inner life, that we feel he is like a person. Buck has been stolen from his comfortable home on a California estate and sold into a rigorous life as a sled dog in the Arctic. He becomes a masterful animal, “his muscles…hard as iron…he grew callous to all ordinary pain.”
Buck comes to love his spartan life and is proud of what his body can do. But then he is sold to a new master, Hal, who stands for a brutal kind of toughness. Hal relentlessly drives Buck day after day, while not feeding him enough, and within a few months Buck is greatly weakened and near death. One day at the campsite, Hal begins to beat Buck with a club. Another man, John Thornton, see this, and London writes:
Suddenly, without warning, uttering a cry that was inarticulate and more like the cry of an animal, John Thornton sprang upon the man who wielded the club. Hal was hurled backward, as though stuck by a falling tree…
John Thornton stood over Buck, struggling to control himself, too convulsed with rage to speak.
“If you strike that dog again, I’ll kill you,” he at last managed to say in a choking voice.
“It’s my dog,” Hal replied, wiping the blood from his mouth…“Get out of my way, or I’ll fix you.”
But John Thornton prevails, and after Hal leaves:
Thornton knelt beside Buck and with rough, kindly hands searched for broken bones….John Thornton and Buck looked at each other.
“You poor devil,” said John Thornton and Buck licked his hand.
Here we see a beautiful toughness in John Thornton, at one with warm, deep feeling.
In an Aesthetic Realism class of 1985, Ellen Reiss discussed The Call of the Wild, particularly the chapter following John Thornton’s rescue of Buck, titled “For the Love of a Man.” Saying the book is “an important work of art,” she talked about it in relation to sentences by Eli Siegel from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known: “To be able to love any person is a beautiful achievement; ever so deep and ever so inclusive…You cannot love a person until that person is a means of loving the world itself.”
Ms. Reiss said that while the story is about great feeling between dog and man, “all love is related to all other love.” Through the dog Buck, we can see what men hope for too, and it’s in what she asked: “Is the greatest achievement to be able to value truly something not oneself?”
Buck comes to live at the home of John Thornton, who has other dogs, too. London writes:
As Buck grew stronger they [the other dogs] enticed him into all sorts of ridiculous games, in which Thornton himself could not forbear to join; and in this fashion Buck romped through his convalescence and into a new existence. Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time.
Asked Ellen Reiss: “What is the relation of ‘new existence’ and ‘love for the first time’”? And she explained they are synonymous. Through John Thornton, Buck has a new sight of the world, a world he can care for, and this makes for a feeling of genuine love—love that was, as London writes, “feverish and burning, that was adoration.”
A beautiful oneness of toughness and feeling is in the passage Ms. Reiss read next, and I never forgot hearing it. London writes how John Thornton:
Had a way of taking Buck’s head roughly between his hands, and resting his own head upon Buck’s, of shaking him back and forth, the while calling him ill names that to Buck were love names. Buck knew no greater joy than that rough embrace…and at each jerk back and forth it seemed that his heart would be shaken out of his body, so great was its ecstasy. And when, released, he sprang to his feet, his mouth laughing, his eyes eloquent, his throat vibrant with unuttered sound, and in that fashion remained without movement, John Thornton would reverently exclaim, “God! you can all but speak!”
Why is that so moving? And why do we—and Buck—know that calling him ill names is really a way of showing affection? Ellen Reiss explained something so deep about the aesthetics, the opposites everyone is looking for in love, and it’s a oneness of toughness and feeling:
There’s the desire to meet the hope of a person to be criticized, to be against and for, simultaneously, in the field of love. This way of showing affection between Buck and John Thornton has the desire to be criticized and encouraged completely and simultaneously.
I’ve seen that in loving a woman, a man hopes to have his narrowness and selfishness lessened, criticized, and the best in him encouraged. We want both true care and tough opposition. That is entirely different from what you read in magazines and hear on TV talk shows, which promote the idea that love is being accepted utterly. It means everything to me that Meryl and I are in the midst of learning about this, and can try to meet that hope in each other for a oneness of feeling and toughness that is the same as kindness. It makes for romance and trust between a man and woman.
3. Can a Tough Man Be Grateful Too?
Dan Martello, 35-years old, lives in southern New Jersey. In consultations, he has spoken often about his job with a social services agency. His manner is affable, but on the job he’s got to be tough, trying to oppose the apathy and cynicism he sometimes meets.
In one consultation, Mr. Martello told how some friends at work had recently shown care and even affection for him—yet as he spoke, he seemed uncomfortable. We asked why and he said:
I have a sense of myself as noble, like “I don’t want people to be thinking about me—there’s other things people should think about, things going on in the world.”
Cons. How do you feel about the fact that you matter to other people—do you like that idea?
DM. Not enough, no. I have an unease with it.
Cons. Why? Do you have any sentimentality in you?
Cons. Do you lead with that, or do you keep it under?
DM. Nah—I keep it under.
Cons. Real men aren’t sentimental?
We spoke about what we’ve seen studying Aesthetic Realism—if a person shows an honest care for you that’s deserved, it means the world itself has come through for you, and do you want to be grateful? It’s a blow to the case a man can have that the world and people are indifferent and cold, and you have to toughen yourself against them. Something in a man doesn’t want to be honestly appreciated because he doesn’t want to be grateful.
Dan Martello has also been learning about the drama of feeling and toughness in him, in his marriage to Grace Martello. He’s spoken with a great deal of feeling about Mrs. Martello, how much he respects her desire to have a good effect on people, including him. She’s been a critic of him and encouraged him in his work, “like when we talk about economics and what people have to go through worrying about affording a place to live.”
Yet Mr. Martello, like other men, could go from being grateful to his wife to getting narrow and tough. “I can have big feeling for her and then I have looked to be disappointed.” We said what we’ve seen:
Cons. The desire to be displeased in the face of good news—it’s hard to say how big a danger, how destructive it can be. We would like you to be against it utterly. If you can be a critic of this, good things will happen.
4. A Heart That Feels Makes One Beautifully Tough
In the class on The Call of the Wild, Ellen Reiss spoke about Jack London’s artistry, saying he is “very good at writing a sentence that seems the quietest thing, and then there’s all this motion.” As an example, she read this, about Buck passing the days with John Thornton —it has the motion of great feeling:
He would lie by the hour, eager, alert, at Thornton’s feet, looking up into his face, dwelling upon it, studying it, following with keenest interest each fleeting expression, every movement or change of feature. Or…he would lie farther away…watching. And often, such was the communion in which they lived, the strength of Buck’s gaze would draw John Thornton’s head around, and he would return the gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as Buck’s heart shone out.
That last phrase, “his heart shining out of his eyes,” puts together the opposites we’re speaking about tonight in a way that is great. Clearly there is large feeling, but it also takes courage, bedrock sincerity for a man to show in this simple, straightforward way what is in his heart. Men have often felt it was wiser, tougher, as Shakespeare’s Iago says, not to “wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at.”
Toward the end of the book, Buck is put to a test, “one that put his name…high…on the totem pole of Alaskan fame.” At the Eldorado Saloon, someone bets $1,500 that Buck cannot, by himself, pull a sled loaded with 1,000 pounds of flour. Thornton needs the money badly, and “[Buck] felt he must do a great thing for John Thornton,” writes Jack London. Buck is put into the riggings of the sled:
He was in perfect condition…and the one hundred and fifty pounds that he weighed were so many pounds of grit and virility. His furry coat shone with the sheen of silk. Down the neck and across the shoulders, his mane, in repose as it was, half bristled…with every movement, as though excess of vigor made each particular hair alive and active.
Buck jerks the loaded sled from side to side until it breaks free of the ice, and then with all his might, pulls it to the finish line. London writes:
Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him [speaking to Buck] long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
When a man offers to buy Buck for a large sum:
Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks. “Sir,” he said…“no, sir.” The onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.
The most beautiful oneness of toughness and a feeling heart that I know was in Eli Siegel. It’s in every lecture he gave that I have the privilege to hear or read, it’s in his poems, in the lessons he gave to people. And Aesthetic Realism can teach men how to have these two things in us in a way that makes us strong and happy.
That’s what is happening to Dan Martello. Because of his education, very good things are happening in his richer, ever-happier life. He wrote to us:
I feel so fortunate to have a beautiful and scientific method to meet any new situation, whether it is on my job, how I see my wife, domestic issues, and my own questions. I am one of the luckiest people in this world.