True Self-Expression, and What Interferes

Mary Bensonfrom an Aesthetic Realism seminar, including a discussion of Mary Benson, South African anti-apartheid activist


As a person who once felt speaking to more than two people at a time constituted a crisis, I’m grateful to tell what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism about the subject of our seminar.  In his lecture on expression, Eli Siegel explains that expression

is anything we do having an outward form, for some purpose of ourselves. . . . Whenever we do something, we show what we are and also what we want.  No person can do anything without expressing himself in some way.  The question is how successful the expression is.

My life—as a woman, wife, and high school English teacher—shows what Ellen Reiss writes in issue 902 of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known: “Our true expression is freed by Aesthetic Realism, as surely and sweetly as a caged lark is freed when the cage is opened and he soars into blue sky.”

Where the trouble about self-expression begins
“Expression,” said Mr. Siegel, “begins with our thoughts to our­selves. That is where we decide on who we are.” As a child in Brooklyn, my thoughts about the world and people were of two very different kinds, arising from two opposing purposes. My desire to like and be affected by the world showed in my early care for words and language. I loved learning to read, and my favorite book was a large, colorful edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. When my 4th grade class began learning French, and later, as I studied other languages, I was thrilled seeing how people in different countries expressed themselves.

But mostly, as I looked at the people closest to me, I had another kind of thought. Like many children, I felt my parents were less refined than I was. I saw my father go from humming “Sweet Georgia Brown” and dancing jauntily to suddenly being furious. And in my snobbishness I was embarrassed by my mother because she was very talkative— even with strangers. I also didn’t feel this was the same mother who made cutting remarks about a neighbor or relative. I used my impressions to be scornful, to have contempt, and to feel I’d express myself, as Mr. Siegel describes in his lecture, “by restraining [myself], by not talking.” I went for the expression of feeling:

you’re roving around in the clouds that make up yourself; and in this way you’ll get away from all the knocks and sharpnesses and thorns that you had to meet.

I wanted to be as different from my parents as I could—including by getting rid of my Brooklyn accent—and from age 9 I worked painstakingly to eradicate any trace of Brooklyn from my speech. It was exhausting!—and it added to my feeling that talking was a burden, not happy self-expression.

For years I was puzzled by the fact that, fiercely untalkative and separate as I was, I cared so much for one of the deepest forms of human expression—language.  In an Aesthetic Realism consultation, I began to understand why when my consultants said:

Aesthetic Realism says the way we use words, both to our­selves and to others, is what our life depends on.  Any warfare with words is essentially a warfare with meaning. [But] the triumph of contempt is also its disaster. We find we’re in ourselves and we can’t get out. Do you think one of the reasons you’re interested in language is a criticism of this?

Yes, it was. I learned that language stands for our deep relation to the world, for through it we are affected by and can express ourselves to other people—which I desperately needed to be and do.  I’d felt encased in myself, and periodically would throw myself into activities that would bring me closer to people—at summer camp; at a new, experimental high school.  But because I wanted to scorn and haughtily dismiss people as “not my type,” I continued to ward them off, and would retreat once again, in pain and triumph.  Mr. Siegel explains why, in these exact and kind sentences:

We have to be impressed before we can express ourselves. Part of the being impressed is the being stirred. If in the field of thought we have put up so many guards that we can be immune to anything deeply exciting, we’ll never express ourselves.

I was deeply immune to what was outside myself. An instance I remember was in late spring, 1970, when I was a sophomore in high school, and the US was engaged in the Vietnam War, one of the ugliest, most brutal things in history. One day, some students came around to every classroom and made an urgent announcement: the President had just sent troops into Cambodia, escalating the war. Outraged by this invasion, they were planning a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest. I’d said I was against the war, but the horrors being inflicted by our country on people in Southeast Asia, who were being maimed, napalmed and killed, were utterly unreal to me. And so, instead of joining my classmates and teachers in proudly expressing large, just anger at what the US was doing, I stayed in school, but I loathed myself for being so cold.

What is true self-expression in love?
Though I tried to convince myself the reason I hadn’t been successful in love was the poor judgment of men, who didn’t know a good thing when they met it, I had a suspicion something in me interfered. In an early consultation, when I was asked: “Are you distressed about the men question?” I answered, “Not terribly, but somewhat.” My consultants asked, “Do you think to say you’re really concerned about men gives them too much importance?” Yes. I did feel showing I was affected by a man was humiliating!

I began to learn that the reason love didn’t fare so well with me was that I’d made a rift between expressing myself and wanting to be affected by someone outside myself. In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I said several men I knew had been critical of my wanting to be useful to them, while not feeling they could be useful to me, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked: “Do you think if we don’t want people to be useful to us, we can’t wholly want to be useful to them?” I didn’t understand why, and she explained with thrilling logic that to be really useful to a person, we have to want him to have all the meaning he can—including for us.

What she was describing is good will, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” I learned that when we love a person, we want the best thing in him to be stronger, more expressed; we want to be a kind critic of the things he dislikes himself for—and we want him to do the same for us. I’m grateful to be engaged in this happy process with my husband Alan Shapiro, jazz pianist and music teacher, as we study Aesthetic Realism together in the great classes taught by Ellen Reiss. That there is a true criterion for love, and that we can learn how to have it, is knowledge every woman deserves!

Powerful self-expression in a woman of South Africa
“The question of expression,” Mr. Siegel explained, “has to do with how much we take in and how we take it in.” A woman who, because she was profoundly stirred by what persons in her native land endured, responded with some of the true self-expression of the 20th century, is Mary Benson, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and died just over two years ago at the age of 80. Her name, says her obituary in the Johannesburg Sunday Times, “has been synonymous with the struggle against apartheid and, more particularly, with the [African National Congress] ever since she wrote the first history of the organisation in the early 60s.” For 50 years, she fought passionately to end the hideous policy of racial segregation instituted in South Africa in 1948, but unofficial, personal policy in the minds of white persons there for half a century before. Because of her work, including an early biography of Nelson Mandela, the government placed her under house arrest, banning all her books, and ultimately forcing her into exile.

Her courage was remarkable—for, as she writes in her auto­biography, A Far Cry—The Making of a South African, growing up she had the racism of “a typical white South African.” Born in 1919, the daughter of the well-to-do administrator of Pretoria’s General Hospital, she tells with shame of the contemptuous way she and others in her family saw their black servants:

We never questioned the ludicrousness, let alone the humiliation to them, of calling these men ‘boys.’ From the time I had learned to write well enough, if the rest of the family was absent, they would come to me: ‘Can I have a night pass, please, nonnie?’ Then I would spell out on a piece of paper: ‘Please pass native Alpheus …,’ with our address, the date and time, and sign my name.

This is about the degrading pass laws, which forced all black persons to carry identification passes; caught without them, they could be arrested, fined, imprisoned.  Aesthetic Realism explains that all prejudice, including apartheid, arises from contempt, from persons’ feeling they’ll express themselves by looking down on and exerting power over people different from them.

At 19, “determined to escape from a life centred on the Country Club,” Ms. Benson felt she had to leave South Africa. An ardent movie fan, for a time she thought she’d be best expressed as an actress, and headed for London, and then Hollywood, only to return a year later when her attempts failed.

During the 2nd World War she joined the South African Women’s Auxiliary Army Service, and in Germany in 1945, she helped administer centers for Displaced Persons: those who’d been in concentration- and labor-camps, orphans, and others who had survived the horrors of the war. This work affected her tremendously, but she writes, “It never occurred to me that millions of my fellow-citizens were treated like Displaced Persons in the country of their birth.  When it came to racial prejudice, I remained a typical white South African.”

Expression She Was Proud Of
The turning point in Mary Benson’s life was when, at 29, she read Alan Paton’s just-published novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Citing its moving first sentences—“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it”—she writes:

I read those words one momentous day in 1948. They still strike at my heart…. Through its revelation of South Africa, the landscape, the people—the black people—[this book] crashed open the mold in which my white consciousness had been formed.

She wrote to Paton, beginning a lifelong friendship with him. It was through speaking with him that she first heard about a courageous Anglican priest whose work exposing slave-labor conditions for black laborers made him loved by Africans and hated by the ruling white minority. His name was Michael Scott, and she determined to meet and work with him. In London, she saw Scott’s films of the inhuman conditions in which native South African’s were forced to live: the shantytowns, the pass laws, the vicious arrests, the decimation of tribal villages. Ms. Benson writes:

The revelations which in Paton’s book had opened heart and mind were now there before my eyes and I tried to catch up on long years of ignorance by reading all the relevant books and articles I could.

“What happens to you when you know something?,” asked Mr. Siegel. “Are you expressed more? Of course, because you have more reason to respond, and all expression is a response.” Mary Benson re­sponded powerfully to what she was learning, and her expression became a great source of pride, and of usefulness to many people.

What interfered with her self-expression in love
Mary Benson says she longed to “combine love. . .with [a large] purpose in life.” The person with whom she got closest to this was Michael Scott. More than with any other man she knew, and she’d had several painful relationships, she had large reason to respect him. “Where principles of justice and humanity were involved,” she writes, “he was totally uncompromising. . . .He had a wide intelligence and probing mind.” She worked, without a salary, as Scott’s secretary and associate for the next seven years.  Together, they founded the African Bureau in London, and worked to document and end the terrible injustices to black persons throughout southern Africa.

But Mary Benson also had another purpose with Michael Scott, and there was much pain between them. I wish she could have heard questions like this, which I had the good fortune to hear in an Aesthetic Realism consultation. “Do you think that even if there’s a man you admire somewhat, you’d like to affect him in such a way that you can have contempt for him?” I did feel this. If I respected a man, I felt I was giving in, and had to assert myself by managing him, aggressively giving advice, feeling I knew better than he how to run his life. This was also some of the trouble in how Mary Benson saw Michael Scott. She tells, for example, of his coming to stay at the apartment she shared with a friend after an exhausting tour of the country. “[He] welcomed my affectionate attention. I tidied him up and, when his back was turned, gave his ankle-length coat to charity.”

Their relationship was complex, and there is much to under­stand about how Scott himself saw. But the fight in Ms. Benson between respecting him and wanting to own him was intense. I think what Mr. Siegel describes in Self and World in speaking of another woman, Stella Winn, who was “noble, self-denying publicly; nervous, narrow, nagging,. . .unjust privately,” explains something that was working in Mary Benson.  Though in her work, she wanted to know and understand South Africa and its people, in some crucial ways she didn’t want to know Michael Scott, including why he felt he could never marry, which she says, “became the theme of obsessive nagging on [her] part.”

Like women everywhere, who have done much less good for the world, Mary Benson wanted something else from men. She says she “was flattered by . . . invitations to lunches or dinners” with male friends who made her very important. When, confused about how to see Michael Scott, she decided to return to South Africa, he said angrily, “How can you take possession, then throw it all away?” She writes: “Those words were to remain imprinted on my mind:…Possession? Ownership?” I respect Ms. Benson’s distress about this. I wish so much she could have learned from Aesthetic Realism that love is justice, beginning with a desire to know and be fair to one person. Not knowing this, she suffered very much. Still, she said of Scott, “all we shared, all I learned from him, enriched and influenced the rest of my life.”

Over the next decade she worked closely with members of the ANC, many of whom—including Nelson Mandela—were on trial for their lives, charged with high treason, and in 1961, she was asked to write a history of the ANC. She eagerly accepted, though meeting with members of an outlawed organization was prohibited, and therefore dangerous. It also involved travel, which was difficult as she had developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis. But she says, “I came to know my country as never before.” In 1963 she testified before the UN Committee on Apartheid, describing the hideous injustice with which native Africans were treated, the courage of many people fighting it, and the “fantastic wave of prosperity” for American and British investors who reaped huge profits from the earth and labor of South Africa.

Two years later, she was placed under house arrest. She could hardly leave her home, could no longer write anything—even a personal diary—couldn’t have visitors or speak with more than one person at a time. After much thought, she decided to leave South Africa for London, so that she could continue to have persons throughout the world know about and oppose apartheid. Her tiny apartment became an unofficial refuge for exiled South Africans. I was moved to learn that when Nelson Mandela was in London just three weeks before Ms. Benson’s death, he interrupted his official duties to visit her.

True self-expression, Mr. Siegel said, “is useful to yourself and everybody else.” To a very large degree, Mary Benson had this, and I’m sure she would want her life to be useful in having women understand themselves. I see Aesthetic Realism itself, the magnificent result of the way Eli Siegel was affected by and used his mind on all reality, as the greatest achievement of expression in the history of human thought. Studying it can have every person, on every continent, feel truly expressed, complete, proud.

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