In this paper, Margot Carpenter—Aesthetic Realism Consultant to women—discusses Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth.
Aesthetic Realism comprehends the depths of women, including explaining for the first time, the fierce battle which agonizes women, and did me. It is the battle between the desire to appear beautiful, to justify our existence by seeing in the approving eyes of people, especially men, evidence that one is a superior being; and the desire to use our minds honestly, accurately to know the world, and see it beautifully. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Eli Siegel asked me, “Do you think when a being came out of geological matter, he asked, ‘How do I look?’ or ‘What am I seeing?’ Which one is more primitive?”
The answer is the second, and Aesthetic Realism shows that we judge ourselves every minute on how justly we see as we look at anything—a book, our mothers, objects, a man, the world itself. We see a tree beautifully, for instance, when we see it is a relation of opposites—it is itself and related to earth, water, air, and other trees, is assertive and yielding, strong and delicate, rooted and in motion. And while bare in winter, a tree has within it rich green leaves that will come forth in Spring, welcoming birds.
We see a man well or beautifully, by seeing he is unique and related to other people; he is known and unknown, energetic and thoughtful, confident and self‑doubting. And we want to encourage what will have him stronger, and also criticize what in himself stands in his way. To see reality accurately is the greatest victory, the most luscious achievement for a woman’s life—it is what we were born for, what our minds, our selves are made for.
But mistakenly, women often make the most important thing how beautiful we can appear, to have a big effect, without wanting to know a man or be affected deeply ourselves. This comes from the ugliest thing in us, the desire to have contempt and make ourselves superior. One woman told us in a consultation when we asked about her charming manner, “Oh, you mean my weapon?” She saw the world as an adversary to conquer and charm into being nice to her. This purpose makes a woman look ugly to herself, because in having contempt, we sell out the beginning purpose of our lives.
We arrange ourselves and betray ourselves
Early, a girl sees she can get approval though looking sweet or lively or demure. This victory, begun with her parents, continues with everyone she meets. The world is seen as existing to praise us, not for us to know and be fair to.
As I grew up, I spent hours before the mirror, playing dress‑up in my mother’s best clothes. At eight, with my mother’s help, on Halloween, like many other girls, I was “Carmen Miranda,” and at 11, in a flowing white sheet, entwined with gold rope, I was “Venus.”
I also began to study ballet, and worked hard. I didn’t know it, but it was the way opposites were one that I loved in ballet—lightness and heaviness, power and grace, exactitude and freedom. But I also liked the glamour of dressing like a swan or a sylph, and seeing I could impress people.
At 18 when I moved to NYC for a stage career, my life centered, both professionally and socially on arranging myself. The more I went after dazzling people, the more the rest of the world looked dull. Unknowingly, I fostered a steep division between how I felt inside, and how I knew I could appear.
In one of the greatest works ever written comprehending women, “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl,” Eli Siegel wrote:
While girls have wanted to be liked “for themselves”—as men do, too—there has been that in them impelling them to be liked for something else….And so a girl in the thirteenth century “arranged” herself to have the most effect on a man. If successful, she could hardly think it was a victory for herself…when we are liked or loved, we want it to be us.
When I read this, I felt like dancing on the roof tops. What had pained me so was placed with girls of all time. One evening, for instance, I had “arranged” myself to affect a man, Ben. After a candlelight dinner, he kissed me, and told me he wanted me. Surprising both of us, I looked at him and said, “You can’t want me; I don’t even want me,” and began to cry.
Mr. Siegel explains in his essay:
So far in history girls haven’t gone around asking, “Do I deserve the praise that Wilfred gave me yesterday?” or, Do I deserve that longing, disturbed yet approving gaze that Walter gave me?” That doesn’t mean that the question doesn’t exist, and hasn’t. It does.
This was at the heart of what I felt, because my purpose was not to see who a man was, but to have him see me as irresistible. I didn’t care a bit about his feelings. I had contempt, feeling I had fooled him, and I loathed myself.
I learn our most dazzling possibility is having good will
In Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes, I learned what every woman needs to know. Mr. Siegel asked me: “At this moment which is first for you: liking yourself or charming people?”
MC I want to like myself.
ES I hope so. But it happens we can’t believe we like ourselves unless we can charm people; that’s the proof.
MC But if we really like ourselves…
ES Don’t make the question easier….A person has a right to see the world as well as possible. A person has a right to look as good as possible….Which do you think is first?… You want to see the world in the best way at a time when you’re sufficiently fortunate, or appreciated, or made enough of.
MC That’s right.
ES Well, I say to you, Margot Carpenter, want to see things, the persons of the world in the best way you can, and get praised second. And you’ll find that as you do that, things are praising you.
I saw this was true! I began to see everything has the structure of the world in it—the opposites. I saw city pigeons, with their black and grey feathers and iridescent necks, rise in their weightiness and then glide gently down, together and separate. As a woman walks, thinking just of herself and who’s looking at her, she misses the meaning, the mystery in ordinary reality that can thrill a person.
I learned the essential criterion for seeing truly, and the only basis for a woman to look beautiful to herself, is by wanting to have 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.” (TRO 121). In a lesson a year and a half later Mr. Siegel said:
ES The way that you have changed, and that others have, is that you have a better heart….The word “heart” is one of those words that takes in the whole person.
MC: I know I’m surprised how much I think about people.
ES Those feelings have to be related to the feelings of victory, achievement, and dazzle. When people begin thinking of good will as brilliant, and a kind heart as dazzling, we’ll get to something. A kind heart is as witty as all get out. A kind heart is as smart as a most delicate whiplash.
The desire to have a kind heart is the same as good will—it puts together encouragement and criticism, because we want a person to be better, not to flatter him senseless when there is more he wants from himself. I’m grateful to learn more each week in classes with Ellen Reiss, taught with scrupulous integrity—how to have this purpose in my marriage to Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy—to think about his life, what is in his mind, how he sees truth in its largeness—which we have met so grandly in Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism—and in its everydayness. I want to know him, how he sees his work as a consultant, his parents, art, construction and carpentry which he loves, and people. And I’m so grateful that because of his own Aesthetic Realism education, this is what my husband asks of me. I love him passionately for it. With many others, I saw in Eli Siegel the person whose seeing was always sheerly beautiful. Whatever he looked at—a book about Newfoundland, an arrow from New Guinea, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a current article, or the feelings of a man worried about his job, or a woman, or an infant, his desire to see, to be completely fair was utterly clear and resplendent.
The struggle in her is in women today
In “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl,” Mr. Siegel writes:
Girls then have had to make a choice between being seen as beautiful and nothing more, or insisting that the way they be seen be beautiful too; a way they could respect. To ask the second, implied that a girl like the way she saw herself, and the way she looked at things.
A woman in literature who stands for this inner struggle is Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. I was very moved to look at a copy now in The Eli Siegel Collection library with many passages marked by him.
The story begins when Lily is twenty‑nine. Her parents, once high in New York society, lost all their money when she was eighteen. Lily looks beautiful and the big thing in the novel is how she uses this. Edith Wharton writes:
Her beauty itself was not the mere ephemeral possession it might have been in the hands of inexperience: her skill in enhancing it, the care she took of it, the use she made of it, seemed to give it a kind of permanence. She felt she could trust it to carry her through to the end.
Lily’s thought centers on how her beauty can secure for her a wealthy husband—and this is not good; in fact, it is contempt. But in Edith Wharton’s prose, as ugly purposes women often try to hide are described exactly, we can understand something of what it means to see beautifully. Mrs. Wharton has her eye on the object; and as she describes a way of mind that weakens women, the way opposites like slowness and speed, rising and falling, strength and grace, are one in her sentences, is beautiful.
For example, in Chapter Two, Lily is on a train to the country, and finds a man she is after is on the same train. Here are portions of a passage which was marked in Mr. Siegel’s book:
She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack….She guessed that…she would have to devise some means of approach which should not appear to be an advance on her part. It amused her to think that any one as rich as Mr. Percy Gryce should be shy…. (She walks passed his seat) The train swayed again, almost flinging Ms. Bart into his arms.
“Oh, Mr. Gryce, is it you? I’m so sorry—I was trying to find the porter and get some tea.”
In these sentences, we see the deep charm of the world, even as charm is misused by a girl. Then, she asks about books he fervently collects:
“And how,” she said, leaning forward, “are you getting on with your Americana?”
His eye became a degree less opaque…and she felt the pride of a skillful operator….
She questioned him intelligently, she heard him submissively, and prepared for the look of lassitude which usually crept over his listeners faces, he grew eloquent under her receptive gaze.
The rhythm of that last sentence in its rise and fall, its neatness and circuitousness has a lively critical clarity about a woman’s deviousness. Edith Wharton was a keen, compassionate observer.
The man who sees and affects Lily most deeply is Lawrence Selden. He is not rich enough to pursue as a husband, and as they talk, we see Lily thirsting for criticism. Every woman does, because we have to be able to like how we see.
Don’t you see,” she continued, “that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won’t be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them?…You don’t know how much I need such friends.”
Selden and Lily talk philosophically about society and freedom, and he criticizes the “waste of human lives” that make some people rich, and what she sees as her need for luxury. She says:
“You despise my ambitions—you think them unworthy of me:”
Selden smiled…”Well, isn’t that a tribute?”
And he tells her the life she is after, will not make her happy.
“What a miserable future you foresee for me:”
“Well, have you never foreseen it for yourself?”
The slow color rose to her cheek…”Often and often,” she said. “But it looks so much darker when you show it to me.”
Selden has Lily see more truly, and it moves her deeply. And he is stirred, not only by her beauty, but by her desire to show herself and her self‑questioning.
But when a woman sees her physical attractiveness as the chief thing about her, even when she does affect a man with more of herself, she will not believe in it. In a consultation, we asked a young woman, Angela Lewis, who told us, “I think a woman’s greatest success is affecting men,” “Do you think the way you want praise makes you feel you don’t deserve it even when you perhaps you do deserve it?”
Were Lily Bart having Aesthetic Realism consultations, we would ask Lily Bart, as we have other women, “Do you want to see who Lawrence Selden is? Which is a greater triumph, if he cares for you because he sees depth in you, or because he can’t resist the power of your appearance?”
Lily has some real feeling for Selden, but we cannot see a man any better than we see the world itself, and so when Selden shows he cares for her, she has contempt for him. She thinks it–
…the culminating moment of her triumph: the moment when she had read in his eyes that no philosophy was proof against her power.
Much happens in the novel; Lily goes after victories for which, in time, she cannot bear herself. “Can you imagine,” she says to a friend—
“looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement—some hideous change has taken place?…Well, I seem to myself like that—I can’t bear to see myself in my own thoughts.”
When a woman uses her attractiveness to conquer the world, she disfigures the best thing in her, the ability to see exactly and to have good will. When, towards the end of the book, Lily, having lost her place in society, is penniless, living in a rented room, unable to sleep without sleeping drops, she talks again with Selden:
“I want to tell you that I have never forgotten the things you said to me, and that sometimes‑‑when I seemed farthest from remembering them—they have helped me, and kept me from really becoming what many people have thought me.”
…she (wanted him to) understand that she had saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.
We see, deeply, it is her desire to see and to be “whole” that matters most to her. Here Lily represents what we’ve seen to be true about every woman.
Wanting to know brings together inside and outside in a woman
At 25, Angela Lewis was pretty, lively, and a successful computer programmer, who wanted to have Aesthetic Realism consultations to learn how to see the outside world, people, and herself more exactly. She had been able to get the approval of men; but felt, she said, “empty and a fake.
Ms. Lewis felt driven to affect men on the one hand, then had terrific scorn for them which pained her. She was very angry at her father for leaving her mother, and had used this to feel she had a right to despise the whole world and all men. We asked:
CON. Do you see men as real? Have you generally given men the right to have questions about themselves like you do?
AL Not enough.
CON Do you think your father is still trying to know who he is?
AL Maybe so. He’s got the attitude, “I’m not good enough, but I’m superior.”
CON Can you see your father as standing for humanity, with the opposites of the world in him? Is he both high and low?
AL I guess he is.
CON Are you? What does a man feel after leaving his children? Do you think he ever forgets?
AL No. I never thought of that.
Ms. Lewis had a lovely look of wonder, thinking about her father more truly. She was learning to see a man as related to the whole world, not just existing to hurt or praise her.
CON The desire to know gives a person dignity and there’s nothing in the world more beautiful. Do you think there’s anything in the world, that if you knew it, wouldn’t add to you?
CON Then the more you know your father, the more you’ll be?
AL Yes, I see that. Thank you.
How Angela Lewis saw her father changed dramatically. She said, “I want to give my father what he deserves.” And she told with pleasure of their many conversations.
She wrote assignments about the opposites in men and in the world. “I want to like how I see,” she said, “and to like the way my mind works as I’m getting to know a man, Ken Banks. I don’t want that narrow, conquering purpose I have had with men.” She wrote:
Through studying Aesthetic Realism, I no longer feel depressed or driven as to men….My mind and my interest in the world are growing larger, I am interested in economics. I care for works of literature…poetry…and this is thrilling! The main thing that I am so grateful for is through the principles of Aesthetic Realism, reality can be known, understood, and liked.
What a woman feels inside and what she shows can be one when her purpose is to know and be fair to other people, a man, her family, the world itself. Angela Lewis, along with many other women, is living, happy evidence for this.