Dale Laurin, architect and Aesthetic Realism consultant discusses the 1943 film Casablanca.
In his great 1949 lecture Poetry and Strength, Eli Siegel defined strength as “the ability to do a lot to other things and to take a lot from other things.” So true strength begins with the desire to affect and to be affected accurately, deeply by the world and people. As we think of the strongest men in history or literature, it is the oneness of these opposites that define them. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, is revered because he took and was affected by so much, from the inhumanity of slavery he despised, to the tremendous burden of trying to keep a bitterly divided nation together, AND because he simultaneously did so much—abolishing slavery and leading the United States through the greatest crisis in its history—the Civil War.
But there is another notion of strength men often go by, described by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss in issue 1019 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known: “To feel that others are less than we; that we can be impervious to anyone or anything and laugh off anybody; that we can mold facts and persons to suit ourselves—people take to be strength. But this contempt, Mr. Siegel showed is the massive weakener of humanity and every individual.”
Like most boys, I unknowingly tried to be strong, take care of myself, in these two completely opposed ways. It was through art that I was most deeply affected by reality and expressed myself through it in a way that made me happy and proud. For five years I attended classes—first in drawing, then painting, design, and sculpture at the local art museum. They took place each Saturday morning—the one morning my mother didn’t have to coax me out of bed; I bounded out!
One of the assignments I loved doing was an in-depth study of a fruit or vegetable. I chose the pepper, whose bulbous shape and lush green color I loved. For weeks I studied peppers inside and out—the smooth hills and valleys of their outer skin, the firm yet translucent inner flesh, the cave-like chambers containing seeds and space; and I tried to give form—through charcoal, paint and clay—not only to their appearance, but their texture, aroma, even their taste. Through wanting to be affected by this amazing instance of botany, I was able to have an effect—get to new, deeper expression that made me stronger.
But I also had the other notion of strength Ms. Reiss describes, “being impervious to anyone or anything,” feeling “that others are less than [me].” Though I acted shy, inside I felt I was better than other people, my classmates, even my parents. I regret to this day, for instance, how ashamed I was of my parents on the occasion when I received a scholarship to continue my art studies in a pre-college program at a nearby university. They had enthusiastically supported my studies and my father had driven me to and from class every week, yet I—cheaply and ungratefully—felt so embarrassed by what I saw as their cultural inferiority that I didn’t even introduce them to my teacher. Yet in my puffed-up self-importance, I felt cowardly, not strong.
Years later, studying Aesthetic Realism, I saw that my contempt for people impaired my expression too: my drawings of the human figure were stiff and awkward. I saw people as competing with me, against me, or at the very least—utterly different from me—and I felt more and more separate, immune to the feelings and full reality of others. “How do you see affecting and being affected?” Eli Siegel so kindly asked me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson I was fortunate to have in 1978. “Well,” I said, “I think too much I’ve wanted to affect and not be affected.” And I learned that when we don’t want to be affected truly, we can’t affect another truly either. The way I had tried to affect people was not through being known by them but through charming them, flattering them, while hiding and fooling, which only reinforced my feeling of isolation.
In the lesson Mr. Siegel asked me a question every man needs to hear, that’s the source of my largest happiness and gratitude: “Can you be deeply affected by a person and stronger?” “Yes,” I said. “And you’re looking for that in the woman I mentioned?” The woman was Barbara Buehler, Aesthetic Realism associate and city planner, whom I had begun to date. Yes, this was what I was looking for and I found it in her. I love Barbara’s keen mind and passionate feeling that all people deserve decent, warm homes in which to live. She was the first woman I wanted to know, not charm, and what I learned and continue to learn from and about her in our happy marriage adds to me, makes me stronger.
1. A Classic Film Shows What False and True Strength Is
A movie I love that illustrates powerfully, movingly the difference between true and false strength in a man, is the 1943 film Casablanca, written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch and directed by Michael Curtiz. The story takes place during World War II in Casablanca in a region on the northwest coast of Africa called Unoccupied France, meaning that while unoccupied by Germany, it is run by the Nazi-installed Vichy government of France, administered by the corrupt and spineless Captain Renault who answers to the German General Heinrich Strasser. As a major debarkation point for refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, Casablanca is the place—explains the narrator—where the fortunate ones through money—or influence—or luck-obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon—and from Lisbon to the Americas. But the others wait in Casablanca, “and wait, and wait, and wait.”
Much of the waiting, and the buying, selling and gambling away of personal property—all in the desperate attempt to buy one’s freedom—takes place in Rick’s American Cafe. The proprietor, Rick Blaine—immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in a powerful, moving performance which my colleague Bruce Blaustein wrote about in an important paper on the actor’s art and life—is the character I will discuss principally. When we first meet Rick, he seems to epitomize a notion of strength that’s hurtfully idealized by many men: the tough guy, the unapologetic cynic, the man who’s seen it all and doesn’t blink twice; it’s all like water off a duck’s back to him.
We see this early in a conversation between Rick and Ugarte, a man who procures exit visas—for a price. Ugarte: “will you have a drink with me please?” Rick: “No.” Ugarte: “You despise me don’t you?” Rick: “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” Ugarte: “You object to the kind of business I do…But think of those poor devils who cannot meet Renault’s price. I get it for them for half. Is that so parasitic?” Rick: “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.” Later Ugarte—chased by the fascist police—begs Rick to hide him but Rick stands by impassively as he’s dragged away. “When they come to get me, Rick,” says an onlooker, “I hope you’ll be of more help.” Replies Rick: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Mr. Siegel explains in Poetry and Strength, “There is a notion of strength in feeling, ‘These people and happenings are not good enough to deserve energy from me.'”
Rick even acts indifferent about the war, like this too does not deserve his thought or energy. Yet he shows some of what he really feels when Captain Renault tells him of a recent arrival in Casablanca who will “offer a fortune to anyone who will furnish him with an exit visa.” Rick: “Yeah? What’s his name?” Renault: “Victor Laszlo.” “Victor Laszlo?!” Renault: “Rick, this is the first time I have seen you so impressed.” Rick (casual again): “Well, he’s succeeded in impressing half the world.” We learn that Laszlo—passionate in his hatred of fascism and leader of the underground fight against it—was imprisoned for a year in a concentration camp before escaping to Casablanca. The Nazis are determined to prevent him from ever leaving the city, but he is equally determined to reach America to continue his crucial work. Everyone—including Rick, Renault, Strasser—respects Victor Laszlo because he has the true strength Eli Siegel describes in Poetry and Strength and which he himself exemplified: “Where a person can feel things and at the same time retain the core that is himself, his foundation—that is strength…The ability to endure, to remain the same amid much vicissitude, is a phase of strength.”
There are hints that Rick too has a stronger core than he shows. We learn, for instance, he fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. And in one scene, he rigs a gambling table at his cafe so that a poor young couple can win enough money to escape Casablanca. But something has occurred that has made Rick bitter and has him—as it has many men—equate coldness with strength, self-preservation: he feels he has been hurt in love by the beautiful Ilsa Lund, whom he met in Paris two years before. And learning that she is married to Victor Laszlo makes him even angrier and mean. When Ilsa—played with radiant dignity and passion by Ingrid Bergman—suspects that Rick has two missing letters of transit that will provide the bearers with indisputable safe passage to America, she comes to him late one night—at great risk to herself—pleading that he sell the letters to Victor Laszlo. But he refuses. Ilsa: “I know how you feel about me, but I’m asking you to put your feelings aside for something more important.” Rick: “I have to hear again what a great man your husband is? What an important Cause he’s fighting for?” Ilsa: “It was your Cause, too.” Rick: “I’m not fighting for anything anymore—except myself. I’m the only Cause I’m interested in…”
Explains Ellen Reiss in The Right Of, “All the foulness and cruelty in human history have come because people have felt that in being fair to the world they would weaken themselves, and that to make themselves strong they must either weaken or not care about what wasn’t they.” Yet in his selfish coldness, Rick looks anything but strong. Ilsa: “You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you? With so much at stake, all you can think of is your own feelings. One woman has hurt you and you take your revenge on the rest of the world. You’re a coward and a weakling.”
2. The False Strength of Profit Economics
“The biggest mistake people make about strength,” writes Ms. Reiss, “is associating strength for oneself with having another person weak,” and she explains how this ugly notion of strength “is central to the economics of our time: I want people to pay as high a price as possible for what I am selling, whether they can afford that price or not; I hope they need my product so badly that I can make them pay as I please, no matter how bad a sacrifice that price is for them.”
While Casablanca is not primarily about economics, Ms. Reiss here explains the underlying ill will that impels and cripples people throughout the film. What rightfully belongs to every person—their freedom—has become in the hands of a few “enterprising” entrepreneurs, a precious and scarce product which people need so badly “that I can make them pay anything I please”—entrepreneurs like the club owner Ferrari, who calls human beings “Casablanca’s leading commodity” and says to Rick, “In refugees alone we could make a fortune if you would work with me through the Black Market,” and the unscrupulous Captain Renault who gladly accepts sexual favors from women who are desperate to leave but cannot pay his price for exit papers. This hideous notion of strength through manipulating and owning people for one’s personal profit, which Eli Siegel showed is the basis of fascism, is also what today has CEOs see the thousands of human beings who work for their companies—each one as real as himself—as assets to be bought, sold, or let go, as profit margins so dictate.
While I was never in such a position of power, I saw people no better—from waitresses who I felt existed to serve me, to my brother who I saw not as a person to know but as a competitor to beat out. It means my life to me that as someone who once felt I would be strong, smart, take care of myself through hardening myself to the feelings of others, I am so different now. Some years ago on a business trip to South America, I was moved to tears seeing the terrible disparity between great wealth and utter poverty, with some of the magnificent mountains surrounding one city dotted with high rise luxury apartments, while others were covered with thousands of shacks without water or sanitary facilities. This experience gave me a greater conviction than ever about the brutality of profit economics, the urgent need for Aesthetic Realism to be known, and for architects to be doing the work they are most needed for—designing buildings for people to live in, NOT make profits from. This emotion makes me strong and proud.
And I am grateful that through the invaluable education I am receiving in professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss, I am learning how to ask questions that strengthen the lives of the men my colleagues and I teach in Aesthetic Realism consultations, such as: 1) Do you grant your wife an existence in her own right? Would it do you good? 2) You may see Frank as your rival, but what would have you stronger and like yourself more—thinking about how you can show him up or about what you can learn from him? 3) Are you more affected by Christine or by your effect on her? Would wanting to know her—how she sees her job, her family, the world, be a concession or a victory for you—and maybe even a terrific good time?
3. Good Will Is True Love and True Strength
In Poetry and Strength, Eli Siegel said, “Real love does make one strong, and fake love does make one weaker…Love here is desire plus knowledge.” One of the things I was thrilled to see as I studied Casablanca, is that the reason Rick seems weaker through his relationship with Ilsa is not because she has left him or married another man; it’s because his love for her was incomplete; he had desire with insufficient knowledge. This is clear in a flashback of Rick and Ilsa together in Paris two years earlier. Ilsa, who had heard false reports that her husband Victor Laszlo had been killed by the Nazis, and feels stunned, lonely and confused, meets and falls in love with Rick. And Rick is greatly affected by Ilsa. Yet he knows next to nothing about her and doesn’t really care to. At one point he muses: “I was just wondering…why I was so lucky—why I should find you waiting for me to come along.” “Why there is no other man in my life?” Ilsa asks. “Well…there was. He is dead.” Rick: “I’m sorry for asking. I forgot we said no questions.” Ilsa: “Well, only one answer can take care of all our questions.” And they kiss. Yet this “romantic” conversation is really against true love and weakening to both of them because they are reinforcing the hurtful thing in each other that feels: we have each other; we don’t have to know each other!
It’s only when Rick finally listens to Ilsa’s criticism of him later, in Casablanca, and wants to know her, and be truly affected— not only by her beauty and her charm, but by her depths—by the world in her, including her emotion about the war and her husband’s life’s work on behalf of humanity, that we feel Rick really does love her. And true to the definition of strength, because he now wants “to take a lot,” he also has desire and “the ability to do a lot”—to imaginatively, beautifully affect other people and things.
The final scene is one of the most powerful and moving in film history. One reason I think it’s great is because Rick surprises everyone and shows what real strength is, as Eli Siegel explained, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” Rick, Ilsa, and Victor Laszlo have arrived at the airport. Through the night fog we see a plane starting its engines in the distance and these three people looking anxiously at the plane and each other, while the director cuts to shots of the Nazi General Strasser driving furiously to the airport to stop them. Ilsa, whose love for Rick has been renewed and deepened by the way he changes, thinks he intends to give Laszlo one of the letters of transit, enabling him to leave, and that she will stay in Casablanca with Rick. But while Laszlo takes the luggage to the plane, Rick says to Ilsa: “You’re getting on that plane.” Ilsa (dazed): “But I…I don’t understand…No, Richard, no!…What’s happened to you? Last night we said—” Rick: “Last night we said a good many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then and it all adds up to one thing. You’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong…lnside of us we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him you’ll regret it ….Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
And then in a line that has become immortal, Rick says to Ilsa—her eyes brimming with tears of sadness, love and great respect—”Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Our largest need,” writes Ellen Reiss, “is to see that being just to the world is self-aggrandizement, cozy and glorious personal power.” This is what Rick shows as he watches the plane disappear into the night sky. He looks proud, intelligent, strong, and happy.
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that true strength comes from wanting to know and be fair to the world and people. It is because he had this purpose always that Eli Siegel—and the education he founded—are unparalleled in their kindness, beauty, and ethical might.