including a discussion of Undine Spragg, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country
I once liked to see myself as exceptionally discerning and intelligent. In college I studied not some ordinary subject, but the more esoteric field of linguistics; I had practical know-how; I also thought I had superior radar for spotting what was wrong with people—especially men. So why did this same young woman who felt I was the keenest thing in Brooklyn often go blank when I was trying to study; why was I so inept in social life, making stupid choices at every turn; why did I feel incapable of caring for anyone? I was like many people who feel: If I’m so smart, why aren’t I happy?
The reason was that my idea of what it meant to be intelligent was inexact and incomplete. In his lecture Mind and Intelligence, Eli Siegel explains:
Intelligence is the ability to take care of oneself and also to care as such . . . . We want to be smart about how to take care of ourselves, but we also have to do a good job with everything else.
That intelligence has centrally to do with how much a person cares for other things, how much he or she likes the world itself, Aesthetic Realism explains for the first time. It also describes what people often feel intelligence is: trying to outwit other people, show them up, look down on the whole human race. This is contempt, and had I not had the good fortune to study Aesthetic Realism, this unintelligent way of seeing would have led me on the road to a life of academic and personal emptiness and despair.
I’ll tell here some of what I’ve learned about the importance of taking care of myself through caring for other people and things, which is making me happier and more truly intelligent with every year. I’ll also discuss aspects of an American novel that shows valuably mistakes women make about intelligence.
Some early decisions about intelligence
“Intelligence,” writes Mr. Siegel in Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World, “is the ability of a self to become at one with the new,” and this stands for the thing I was hoping for most deeply as I was growing up. I had a sincere interest in learning, loved reading and spelling, and later studied several languages. Yet I also liked feeling superior to my classmates as I won school spelling bees and got good grades. I thought I had a natural gift and didn’t have to study. Once, when I was annoyed at getting only a 90 on a test while my friend did better, she said angrily, “But I worked for it!”—and I was ashamed.
I had an intense fight between wanting to become at one with the new as to knowledge and the desire to feel other things and people were not very interesting and also inimical. These sentences by Mr. Siegel describe what went on in me:
We are afraid of the new and we want it . . . . Intelligence should be judged not only by how much we can manage what is around us, but by the scope of what we wish to see as new, and as something we want to deal with.
I felt studying academic subjects was easier than knowing people. I found something wrong with everyone I met, and felt justified in keeping to myself. Seeing I felt this, my consultants asked: “What do you use to be superior, aside from your Rosenesque, innate charm? You’re more intelligent?” I said hesitantly, “I don’t think so”—but I did, and understandably, it didn’t help my social life. “Do you think there’s any pleasure in turning people into shadows?,” my consultants asked, and they explained, “What people generally do is change the puzzlingness of the world into a contempt triumph.” I saw this is what I’d done, beginning with my father, Barney Rosen. I thought he and I were the intellectual ones in the family, though I conceded that my mother had that lesser kind of intelligence, “common sense.” Sometimes, I felt he was the person closest to me—also the one who made me most important and whom I thought I knew how to manage—but at other times I felt he was an angry stranger.
My education in how to be intelligent about people included these questions: “Do you think your father is a full-fledged person?” “Is there in you enough pleasure and desire to know who your father is?” “Do you think the pain your father has says anything about a desire to put opposites together and an inability to do so?” As I began to see Barney Rosen as a subject as worthy of thought as the structure of a Latin sentence, I felt more at ease not only with him, but with other people. This made it possible for me to have a proud career as a high school English teacher, and a marriage to Alan Shapiro, jazz pianist and music teacher, which I cherish. Studying together in the scholarly classes taught by Ellen Reiss is making us more intelligent, enabling us to have larger feelings for the world and other people, and making our marriage deeper and more exciting all the time!