from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, including a discussion of the short story “The Last Leaf,” by O. Henry
Throughout history, people have admired women who had a beautiful determination, such as Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie—women who used their thought and energy to do good for the world and other people. Their determination arose from what Aesthetic Realism shows is the greatest purpose anyone can have: good will—defined by Eli Siegel as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
Yet women also have a kind of determination that comes from a completely different source, the feeling: “What I want, what serves me and makes me important is the only thing that matters, and I’ll stop at nothing till I get my way.” And even if we get what we’re after, this determination is wrong, because it is in behalf of contempt—“the desire to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self”—and this is the greatest weakener of a woman’s life. As I know from intense personal experience, this kind of determination makes us mean and has us feel empty and disgusted with ourselves.
I describe here some of what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, in consultations and classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, about various forms of feminine determination: defiance, an insistence on feeling hurt, the drive to have a man make me important. As these have been kindly criticized in me, I’ve changed, and now have a happy, fortunate life—as a woman, wife, teacher, friend. I will also speak about two kinds of determination in a keen, moving American short story.
A child’s determination: right and wrong
Growing up in Brooklyn, I had the fight everyone has between hoping to see meaning in things and wanting to have contempt. Very early, I was interested in words and language. Eli Siegel explained that words are “the results of a successful love of objects,” and came to be because of a deep determination in people to have the outside world permanently in our minds and the desire to express ourselves. I loved learning to read, and was excited to begin French in elementary school. Then, and later as I studied other languages, I had great pleasure working to learn new words and pronounce them correctly.
I was also determined to wring as much praise as I could from the adults I knew. Though I wanted this from both my parents, my mother wasn’t as silly about me as my father sometimes seemed. When he took me to work and showed me off as his sweet, well-behaved little girl, I felt powerful when his co-workers fawned over me, with my auburn ringlets and pretty dresses. But the father who was adoring at times like these was, more often, explosive or distant and, I felt, uncaring. In my first consultation, I was asked: “Do you think the way your father is two people has angered you?” Yes, it had. A child can
rightly object to her parents’ doubleness, but I exploited my confusion to feel I’d be smart to depend only on myself, and had the triumphant determination Mr. Siegel describes in these lines from his poem “Twenty-One Distichs about Children”:
As much as little Alice was unknown,
She thought, I’m in myself and just my own.
I could go far away in my mind and be oblivious to what was going on around me. And while I was “obedient” when it paid, I felt I was my own boss, and no one was going to tell me what to do. Once, when I was 3 or 4, my mother was trying to get me ready to go out and I wouldn’t let her put on my shoes. She said sharply, “Give me your foot!” “Take it!” I answered. My stubborn insistence on having my way became family legend; there’s a story of my mother hearing me say one morning, as I sat on my bed and listed aloud the events of the day: “First we get up, then we get dressed, then we eat breakfast—no, first we get up, then we get yelled at, then we get dressed.”
In my teens, I coolly ignored my father when he asked me, for instance, to bring him some water or do the dishes, and inwardly mocked him for blowing up while I was unperturbed. My consultants asked: “Do you like to defy people?” I had. “What good does it do you?” I wasn’t sure, and they explained: “When we defy someone we feel we’re somebody. We’re not wishy-washy. But do you like the way you defy, and the reasons for it?” No, I didn’t. Defiance can come from a passionate determination to fight injustice, but mine was not so noble: it came from disdain for reality, and a determination to have myself to myself. However, my consultants explained, “One disadvantage of this kind of defiance is: we can’t stop it when we want to.” I had loved reading, but found myself unable to finish books: I’d stop when I met a difficult passage that made me think more than I felt I should have to. I wanted to make friends, but would blurt out things that would push people away. As time went on, I became increasingly worried about how my mind was working, and was terrifically lonely.
The determination to be hurt
Aesthetic Realism explains that when we’re determined to have our way through contempt, we’ll work to justify feeling things are against us. I often acted hurt by something or someone; I never got the breaks, as I saw it; I felt left out, and that no one saw my value. Yet with all my pain, secretly I enjoyed feeling slighted, because then I felt I was right in keeping to myself.
“Once you are looking for disappointment,” said Mr. Siegel, “you can be a super-FBI.” I was! I was adept at turning any situation into an affront. If someone pulled out a chair for me, it was because he thought I was incapable of doing it myself. I reduced people, with whole lives and deep feelings, into beings whose sole purpose was to lessen me. I didn’t see how unkind, and also how self-defeating this was, stopping me from feeling close to anyone.
This was especially true with men. I yearned for love, for someone to tell me I was wonderful. Meanwhile, I acted as if no man suited me, and thought: “Who needs them, anyway?” They got the message! “The problem that a girl has,” writes Mr. Siegel in his essay “Medusa Is a Nice Girl”:
is whether self-maintenance is negation or inclusiveness….There is something in everyone making “Don’t come closer” or “Don’t touch me” seem the wisest and most representative thing of that person.
I began to understand this fight in myself when I was asked in a consultation if the way I went after my father’s praise while scorning him had made me unsure of myself as to men. I saw that what I’d been looking for from a man—to have him make me regal while I reserved the right to dismiss him—was like what I’d gone after with my father, Barney Rosen. As I changed my purpose with him, and really wanted to know how he saw himself, his past, his work, and more—I came to have a new respect for men. Meanwhile, there was more I needed to see. I still felt what I was missing was a man who saw my good qualities and would praise me in just the right, sensitive way, and I wasn’t hopeful about love. In a class some years ago, Ellen Reiss asked me: “What would you rather do, say there’s more for you to see, or despair?” I said, “I’ve preferred despair,” and she continued:
It’s a wonderful way of not having to see any more. “I know no one is going to care for me. Other women may be able to speak to a man a certain way, but I know I’ll never have the chance.” It’s the same as putting a crown on your head.
This was true, and I love Ms. Reiss for showing that my insistence on despair was insincere, a form of contempt, and such a waste of time! Through this and other discussions I felt much more hopeful. Now, I am proud to say I am deeply in love with a man—Alan Shapiro, music educator and jazz pianist, who is my husband. And our education happily continues.
Two kinds of determination in an American short story
I speak now about a moving short story of 1907 by the American writer William Sydney Porter—better known by his penname, O. Henry: “The Last Leaf.” My high school students love this story, in its compassionate criticism of a young woman’s determination to retreat from the world, and its showing of her friends’ kindness in being determined that she not!
In a lecture, Eli Siegel said, “A few [of O. Henry’s] stories show he belongs to American literature.” I believe this is one of them. It tells of two young painters sharing a studio in the artists’ colony described as “quaint old Greenwich Village.” Sue is from Maine, and easily adjusts to New York winters, but Joanna, or Johnsy, from California, doesn’t, and when, “in November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony—touching one here and there with his icy fingers,” Johnsy becomes very ill.
The doctor gives her a one-in-ten chance—but only if she wants to live, and he tells Sue “she has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well.” We can ask: what had Johnsy used to come to this decision? Did she, a struggling artist, feel humiliated having to do work that was less than grand in order, as the author says, to “pave [her] way to Art”? Might she have felt in some way what I had: that she hadn’t got the breaks, and did she take New York in winter to stand for a world she wanted to see as cold to her? “When there is an external misfortune,” Mr. Siegel explains, there can be mental trouble arising “from wanting to use it too much to make oneself distinguished in sadness and to feel the world is a failure.”
O. Henry is keen in saying that Johnsy will be stronger if she shows an active interest in the world. The doctor asks, “Has she anything on her mind?” and he continues,
Whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one-in-ten.
Sue goes to Johnsy’s bedside when she hears her murmuring: “‘Twelve,’ …and a little later ‘eleven’; and [then] ‘eight’ and ‘seven,’ almost together.” “What was there to count?…There was only a…dreary yard [and an] old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, [which] climbed half way up the brick wall.” Johnsy says weakly:
“They’re falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it’s easy….There are only five left now.” “Five what, dear?” “Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?”
Sue is distraught, and Johnsy says,
“I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too. I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor tired leaves.”
When Johnsy says, “I’m tired of thinking,” she is showing a very wrong kind of determination, which is also very common.
I don’t want to minimize for a second how terrifying it is for a person to have a life-threatening illness. Yet I have seen that even when a person is in great distress, about oneself or a loved one, it is urgent that we have a determination on behalf of life. “Is this true,” asked Eli Siegel, in this vital question:
No matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?
This is centrally about the fight between the two opposing kinds of determination in a person’s mind. This story, with its pathos, its careful use of words, and, as we’ll see, the irony that is O. Henry’s trademark, shows the answer is “YES!”
Sue is determined to find some way to have Johnsy give up her desire to die, and talks to their neighbor, Mr. Behrman—who, “regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists.” He was, the author says, “a failure in art….He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece,” though he hadn’t painted a single stroke on it in 25 years. When Sue tells him of Johnsy’s situation, he “shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings.”
“Vass!…Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine?…Vy…do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”
“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies.” Mr. Behrman is intent on trying to help: “Go on, I come mit you….Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.”
Sue shows Behrman the fateful ivy vine. “They looked at each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with snow.” Sure that the rain would strip the last leaves from the vine, Sue pulls down the shade to prevent Johnsy from looking out the window—but to no avail. The next morning, Johnsy, insists Sue raise the shade.
But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf….Still dark green near its stem, but with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from a branch some twenty feet above the ground.
“It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would surely fall during the night…It will fall today, and I shall die at the same time.”
I see this story, and Johnsy’s determination to make these leaves stand for herself and her own certain death, as symbolic. Aesthetic Realism explains: we punish ourselves when we want to put aside the world, represented here by this ivy vine. These leaves put together reality’s opposites: delicacy and strength, fixity and motion, bright and dark. Had Johnsy wanted to get rid of that world—and is she now punishing herself for this? From O. Henry’s description, I think this is what is happening.
Another day and another stormy night pass and, the author writes, “Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.” But despite her terrible determination, the leaf is still there. As she sees this little ivy leaf, which has endured so much, yet persists, she takes it as some criticism of herself. “I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” she said.
“Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die.”…Later she said: “… Some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”
Johnsy’s hope to like the world is winning out; she wants to live. The doctor is encouraging, but says he must see another pneumonia patient downstairs. It is Mr. Behrman. He says, “The attack is acute. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more comfortable.”
Johnsy grows stronger. The story ends with large feeling, along with the kind of ironic twist O. Henry is known for. Sue sadly tells her friend of Mr. Behrman’s death:
“He was ill only two days. The janitor found him…helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night….Then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder…, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and—look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece. He painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”
Though this has sorrow, Mr. Behrman’s masterpiece, a tiny leaf painted on a wall, arose from the most beautiful form of determination, good will, which was the same as his greatest self-expression.
Women today can learn from Aesthetic Realism to have this proud determination—and it is my fervent hope that they do!