with a discussion of Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, a paper from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar
One holiday season, I was perusing the bookstore shelves for a gift for a friend when my eye fell on just the thing: a book on an author we both liked. I reached for the volume—then suddenly stopped mid-air. If I gave her this book and she read it, I thought, she’d know more about this writer than I did—and the thought rankled. I felt horrible about being so competitive with my friend and, for a few minutes, inwardly battled my selfishness—but it won, and I didn’t get the book.
What was going on in me was an instance of the fight that’s gone on in everyone. “History,” wrote Eli Siegel, “consists largely of man’s attempts to acquire what he sees as justice for himself with the rather clever desire of not giving it to another.” But trying cleverly to care for ourselves this way, through contempt for what other people are and deserve, derails us from our deepest purpose. We need, Aesthetic Realism shows, to feel sincerely: “I’m taking care of me!” by trying to be just to others.
What I’ve learned on this crucial subject has given me a happy, richly useful life and a greater desire to be just other people. This includes the thousands of students I taught for nearly 30 years as a high school English teacher, using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
How does the fight begin?
As a child, I had two completely different notions of how to care for myself. I liked learning about words and language, and also science. I remember the thrill of seeing, in Miss Polisi’s first grade class at Brooklyn’s PS 104, how letters grouped into words joined to make sentences, and, printed in black and white on a page, told a story. And I was enthralled watching Don Herbert—known as “Mr. Wizard”—on tv with my father, who’d then help me carefully replicate some of the experiments he did.
But this same father, Barney Rosen, also confused me. He could be explosively angry—so different from the man who could dance jauntily in the kitchen with my mother to a song on the radio. Who was this man? And who was my mother? Was Edith Rosen the woman who was sarcastic and, I thought, preferred my younger sister to me, or the one who liked to help people and struck up friendly conversations with everyone? I felt my parents stood for a confusing, unpredictable and vulgar world. Wanting be as different from them as possible, I cultivated a placid demeanor, unperturbed and aloof.
Though I loved language, I didn’t speak much unless absolutely necessary. When people called me a snob, I was shocked and offended: I was just protecting myself and my dignity. If I put myself out there, I felt, I’d make a fool of myself, as I thought my mother did; people would make fun of me, and that I couldn’t bear. I felt most people were unworthy of me, and also that they were against me, ready to pounce on my flaws. I was to learn years later that—because the self is deeply ethical—I punished myself for seeing people in this unjust way by feeling lonely and increasingly hopeless about ever being close to anyone. Contempt, wrote Mr. Siegel in Self and World, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker.”
I did feel consciously bad about how I saw my father, and said in my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I felt I owed it to him to try to understand him. When I said scornfully that he was a “dreamer,” and also that he cared for numbers, my consultants asked:
Do you think the pain he has, which may show itself as anger, says anything about a desire to put opposites together and an inability to do so? Do you think if he could put together the precision of mathematics and the person who has all those dreams, he’d be a happier person?
I learned that, like many people, my father had a difficult time making sense out of the way he could be tough one moment, and tender the next, and that he and I, to my great surprise, had human questions in common. Seeing this, the hard knot of anger within me began to loosen. Through assignments I did, I came to see trying to know other people as a good time—for instance: “A monologue of my mother at 18,” “My sister’s pain: a short essay”—and, I wrote part of an imaginary Aesthetic Realism consultation for my father, taking both his part and that of the consultants. Through it, I began to realize that he had felt my mother, my sister, and I made him into nothing. When I saw that I’d actually hurt him, and hadn’t wanted to see his feelings as real, and that he had a right to be critical of me, I wanted to be different. For the first time I began to have real conversations with him which made for new respect and deeper feeling in both of us. The change in me had a visible effect: people said I looked softer, happier. When an old friend spotted me from a distance, she literally ran to me, saying: “You’re in love!” I was—with the new way of seeing I was learning from Aesthetic Realism.
Caring for Self & Justice to Others in a Contemporary Novel
The popular and also controversial 2009 novel The Help tells of the complex relationships between white people and their African-American maids in racially segregated Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60s. Both the novel and last year’s Hollywood film of it have taken people very much, and have also met with intense objections. Some people feel the author, Kathryn Stockett, who is white, was presumptuous for daring to think she could see and present what black persons felt.
While I feel the novel could definitely be deeper, I believe The Help is valuable in having people more conscious of what others endure. And I think that, with at least some success, Ms. Stockett used her imagination to try to get within the feelings of people different from herself. For example, she wrote in a short essay that accompanies the novel:
I don’t presume to think that I know that it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something that any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand it is vital to our humanity.
The word vital is in italics.
I see these sentences as showing Ms. Stockett’s desire to have good will—which Aesthetic Realism says definitely we have to go after if we’re to feel taking care of ourselves and justice to others are the same. And the novel provides many examples, of which I’ll give just a few, of the two ways a woman has of taking care of herself: by having respect or having contempt; by feeling she has a deep kinship to others, or by feeling she’s superior to them. Aesthetic Realism shows, with a seeing that’s new in history, that ordinary contempt is the cause of the brutal injustice that is racism. “Contempt,” writes Ellen Reiss,
has a person see the idea that another is equal to oneself as insulting and desolating: if all those people are equal to us, then “we [are] nobody”! [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1346]
The novel’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone in the movie), is a recent college graduate who wants to be a writer. She’s been advised: “Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.” Though she’d grown up not questioning the horrific racism of the Jim Crow South, this begins to change, and she decides to compile, in complete secrecy, a book of interviews of African-American women who work as “help”—maids in the homes of people she knows.
Understandably, the idea strikes these women with terror; they know what’s happened to black people who tried to vote or accidentally used facilities designated “White Only”. They have been beaten and lynched. Says one maid, Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis), who is perhaps the novel’s deepest character: “Miss Skeeter, I do this with you, I might as well burn my own house down.” Her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer), vocal in her hatred of white people, asks suspiciously: “What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?” But after much inward debate and many discussions, these women decide to work with Skeeter on the book. Then, after the brutal murder of the beloved Medgar Evers of the NAACP, the outrage in Jackson’s black community is so great, many other maids agree to be interviewed. They stand for hundreds of men and women who courageously risked their lives during the years of the Civil Rights movement, because they felt passionately that fighting for justice to others was exactly the same as taking care of themselves.
Caring for Oneself: Through Contempt or Respect?
A character who shows most vividly the desire to have one’s way and take care of herself through contempt is Skeeter’s friend Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly is a smiling tyrant; she orders her elderly mother around, tells other women whom they should be friends with, and what they should wear—and gloats when they cower and obey. She’s also blatantly a racist: she speaks to and about African-Americans with hideous contempt. The “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” she’s written—a proposal that the law require every white home to have a separate bathroom for the “colored” help—makes this clear. She says: “Everybody knows they carry different diseases than we do.”
Hilly’s purpose is despicable. But we need to see—and the author needs to see: what this comes from is the same contemptuous way of seeing people that, in an everyday way, makes for coffee-break conversations between women that wipe the floor with men—and also, on a larger scale, for discussions among executives that strip workers of their rights, and talks in the halls of government that make the feelings of human beings unreal. It comes from the ugly way of seeing I had as I teamed up with my mother and sister to make father’s feelings into nothing. All of these begin with people thinking they’ll take care of themselves by lessening others.
“The big thing people have not known about racial prejudice,” writes Ellen Reiss, in some of the most important sentences I know:
is that it does not begin with race. It begins with…how one sees the world. Race will never be understood and racial prejudice will not end until people can learn the following from Aesthetic Realism: …Race is an aspect of the aesthetic structure, the sameness-and-difference structure, of the world. This structure is what we see as we see two different things, ocean and sky, inextricably part of one horizon; as different words join together to make one sentence; as a tree’s trunk and leaves are different yet for each other, sweetly and powerfully coherent with each other.
Skeeter is the only one of Hilly’s friends who objects to her racist proposal—and it’s part of what instigates her to write this book. But Aibileen, who works for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, knows this plan for a separate bathroom is meant for her, and she feels she has to hide her rage. Aibileen feels that people owe something to each other and she’s angry when she sees her white employer Elizabeth Leefolt treat her own young daughter very badly, because she’s not as pretty or “cute” as her mother thinks she should be. And Aibileen is also a keen observer of people in general, sensing that their injustice not only makes them mean, but very unsure of themselves.
True and False Care for Oneself in Love
One aspect of this novel which can be questioned is in how the author writes about love between Skeeter and a man she’s interested in. Aesthetic Realism explains the purpose of love is to like the world through being close to a person. Part of this is that a woman has to want a man to know her, to care for the deepest, best thing in her—her desire to be just to the world and people—and to be a critic of what in her is against that. And she has to want to do the same for him.
Like many women, I wanted to be adored, told I was wonderful, feeling then I would like myself—but it never worked. I began to learn what every woman needs to know: that love is a means of caring truly for oneself by seeing who another person is, how he represents the multitudinous world from which he comes.
This happened to me when I met Alan Shapiro—jazz pianist and music educator—who is now my husband. Through knowing him, the world affected me in new ways in the form of music; the suburbs of Philadelphia where he grew up; his students; the opposites of humor and seriousness, and much more. I soon found I was swept by him in a way I hadn’t expected. But I also felt scared that I was losing myself. Some days after Alan and I had an important conversation, when I saw him at a gathering with many people, I was agitated and walked right past him and out the door, not even acknowledging his presence. “How could I do that?” I said to myself. I felt bad and thought I should go back and apologize, but I couldn’t. I didn’t understand what was working in me. When I said in an Aesthetic Realism class that I was afraid of how much I was being affected by Alan, Ellen Reiss asked:
If you’re afraid of large feeling, do you think you see it as accurate? People can want to have the grand passion and prefer not to have it be exact. I think that you can be afraid that you won’t be proud of it because it’s not exact.
And she explained that a woman can also be afraid of having large emotion because it is exact, and she thinks it would affect her too much and she’d no longer be able to be aloof and superior. After this discussion a big change took place in me. I saw that in being honestly affected by Alan, I was actually more myself, not less!
In the novel when Skeeter Phelan meets Stuart Whitworth, she feels here at last is a man who will make much of her, tell her she’s wonderful. But while he praises her for speaking her mind, she feels she has to hide from him the thing she’s proudest of—her work on this book—afraid that he won’t like it, tell others, and could jeopardize the safety of the women she’s interviewing. She’s in a fight between wanting his approval and wanting to be honest. When she finally does tell him, he’s shocked and breaks up with her. And though she’s hurt, she does see that she can’t love a man who doesn’t care for the best, most ethical thing in her.
The Way of Seeing People that Takes Care of Us
After months of work, and deep education, Skeeter’s book, which is titled Help, is published—anonymously, and with all the maids’ names changed for protection. Still, they’re afraid that Hilly, who is exposed for the arrogant racist she is, will unleash her wrath on everyone involved. She’s already made Skeeter a pariah in their circle and in Jackson for becoming “an integrationist,” which she says as if it’s a curse.
Meanwhile, the book deeply affects the women of Jackson, including some of Skeeter’s friends. She comes to feel that the choice she’s made, trying to see the African-American women she’s interviewed more exactly, more fairly, has been the right choice.
It’s my opinion that because Aesthetic Realism shows that justice to others is the same as gloriously caring for ourselves, it is the hope of humanity. I end with this short poem by Eli Siegel, which I love, because it stands for that feeling:
The Inclusive Shiningness of Justice
She was brilliantly just to him.
She found out later she had been brilliantly just to everything.
Justice is that way.
Nothing shines more than justice,
Nothing is more inclusively shining than justice.