This article by my colleague, science educator Sally Ross, was originally given at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar. In it, she discusses the popular musical play The Fantastiks.
One summer night in July 1971 I looked around the cabin of the plane I was in, high above the Atlantic, bound for an archaeological dig in Israel, and cried to myself, “What am I doing here with these strangers? I want to be back home with my boyfriend!” I had been so excited about the summer, but in that moment of panic I wanted to head back to what I saw as comfort and safety. I was in the midst of our subject tonight: the fight in women between security and adventure.
In his 1949 lecture, Mind and Security, Eli Siegel said,
[T]wo things are often in a battle: the same person who wants security is the person who unconsciously will take many chances. We want the world all sewn up, wrapped up and safe, and we also want it to surprise us. So persons do get into mix-ups….
When people have security, they want adventure; and when they have adventure, they want security. And the only thing…that makes sense out of the whole business is aesthetics. [TRO 472]
Aesthetic Realism enabled me to make sense of the mix-up between these two opposites. I learned that when our purpose is to know and see meaning in the world, we’re more honestly secure and also ready to be adventurous. And the thing that interferes, that makes these opposites fight, is contempt, the desire “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [ourselves].”
I. Early Choices for Contempt—and Their Results
As a child I felt my home and the streets of our neighborhood in Connecticut were places of security. I liked curling up on the living room couch absorbed in the suspense of a Nancy Drew mystery. And I remember delightedly exploring the nearby glen with my friends Kate and Ann and our excitement at discovering a small, mossy island we dubbed “South America” because of its surprising shape.
But it’s very easy to use the territory close to us as a safe haven against the rest of the world. I felt what was beyond my immediate surroundings was unfriendly, and for years I had a fear, sometimes intense, that my parents would abandon me. At age 3½ I cried each day for a month when my mother left me at nursery school, until my parents finally took me out of the school. In second grade I was excited about visiting a classmate who lived in another part of town after school. But when the day came, I got so scared, I called my mother from school and begged her to let me come home.
I felt crippled by my fears. What was wrong? Years later I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a child comes to an attitude to the world through how we see our parents. My mother, Kathryn Ross, was an energetic woman, who busily ran a household and raised 6 children; yet I vividly remember her sitting at the kitchen table with a far-away look on her face. I felt she was distant, that I couldn’t reach her. But the mistake I made was that I used the distance I felt from my parents to make unfortunate choices. Instead of trying to understand what my mother felt, I did what Mr. Siegel describes succinctly and musically in #18 of his “Twenty-One Distichs about Children”:
18. Dreary Catastrophe.
As much as little Alice was unknown,
She thought, I’m in myself and just my own.
This feeling, “I’ve got myself to myself, and I can shut you all out” is contempt; it can seem very warm and, oh, so secure, and I went for it. I remember triumphantly locking my door and barricading it with furniture, as my brothers and sisters pounded on it, trying to get in. And I liked climbing a tall pine tree in our yard, swaying on the highest branch, and scaring my mother. I felt daring, but also I had the smug, self-satisfied feeling, “You can’t get me!”
What I learned in my second Aesthetic Realism consultation began a profound change in how I saw the world, including my mother and father. I was asked:
C: How early do you think you dismissed your parents? Do you think at the age of two something in you deserted them and felt they weren’t the people for you?
SR: Yes, I think I deserted my mother.
C: You have to make sense of where the world has given you reason to feel separate, and where you yourself have chosen that….We feel guilty any time we are separate from reality. The question is: how deeply did you dismiss your mother, and in dismissing her did you feel terrible?
This was a stunning revelation to me. I came to see that early I felt powerful getting away from people, looking for flaws and feeling superior. I felt I was smarter, deeper than my mother, more suited to my father, but I was distant from him, too. I learned that the physical separation that had terrified me as a child was symbolic of the way I had unjustly separated myself from people in my mind. It was a turning point in my life to speak with my parents about what I learned in this consultation; it is one of many conversations we have had over the years that made for much greater warmth and closeness between us.
II. Security and Adventure: For or Against the World?
I learned that a person can go after a false kind of security and also a corrupt sense of adventure through feeling that in the privacy of her mind, she can deal freely with the facts, arrange them to suit herself. In Mind and Security Mr. Siegel describes how a woman may
appear like a regulation housewife, but deeply she’s a pirate, an angel flying into space, a person who goes into caves, and so on.
The crucial thing Aesthetic Realism teaches about both security and adventure is our purpose in going after these: is it to respect and see meaning in the world, or to have a victory over it? Adventure that is against reality can take the form of playing tricks in one’s mind. One way I did this was by wearing a watch that didn’t work, which I called my “dead watch.” Whenever anyone asked me the time, I would look at my watch and tell them what it said. I thought this was very clever, and I liked the bewildered looks on people’s faces as I matter-of-factly told them the incorrect time.
I remember, too, a day in a class in my senior year of high school. I was afraid the teacher would call on me and I wouldn’t be able to answer. I decided that if she did, I would draw an invisible, protective box around myself and sit in it silently until she continued with the class. That is just what happened. Years later when I described this to Mr. Siegel in a class, he asked:
ES: So you were defiant?
SR: Yes. I have no idea how long I sat or what effect this had on the teacher or students; for a while, they didn’t exist for me.
ES: [There is a] desire to annihilate things. The great quotation there is about Caligula [the Roman emperor]. He wished that the Roman people had one head, so he could cut it off quickly.
The feeling that one has the right to do anything one pleases with truth—including the truth about other people—is very ordinary. We think it makes us secure; but no matter who does it—a schoolgirl or the leader of a nation—it makes that person a menace to oneself and others. It’s the most dangerous way a person can use one’s mind.
In his lecture Mr. Siegel describes the spurious way people go after after trying to be sure of ourselves, and I did. He said,
People get [security] by saying, “As little as possible affect me. If I can make myself asbestos and heavy gloves and a statue, then I’m going to be safe.” But…you are not going to be secure by making yourself less alive….This principle of thinking that you’re secure by shutting out life is one that is followed unconsciously; it’s the ego’s dull joy ride. [TRO 476]
My drive for contempt made me increasingly insecure, and I believe it was the cause of an acute anxiety attack I had in college.
Some months later I experienced a kind of adventure different from the inward expeditions I had taken in my mind. I attended NOLS—the National Outdoor Leadership School—in Lander, Wyoming. I took a course in survival training, in which we carried 60-lb backpacks containing everything we would need for 6 weeks of hiking in the mountains. We learned to read topographic maps and fly-fish, and crossed a gorge on a rope. And each of us spent a night alone without a tent or sleeping bag.
In some ways NOLS strengthened me because through it I had more respect for reality. The snow-capped mountains and spectacular sunsets had me see the world as more likable. Also, I had to work hard just to get from one place to another; I couldn’t take things for granted the way I had. And living in the woods I had to rely closely on other people and yield to the forces of nature. This opposed my desire to have myself to myself and run the world, and it made me more sure of myself. In his lecture Mr. Siegel explains the principle behind this, when he says:
We cannot be for ourselves unless we take as an ally what things are in general….When people, for example, are tired and they take a breath of air, and they get new strength, or they take a glass of water, what they are saying is, “Through something outside myself I can become stronger.” But this doesn’t hold good only for air or glasses of water. It holds good for the general idea of the outside world, for the truth which exists and can be seen as existing before we were born. [TRO 474]
Yet a person can use anything, including a wilderness expedition, to get to the false security of contempt. Stupidly, I used this adventure to feel superior to people who rode around in cars and slept in beds.
III. The Security and Adventure of Knowing Ourselves and the World
Fortunately for my life, just weeks after leaving Wyoming, I began studying Aesthetic Realism, and I really “came out of the woods”. As I learned about my deepest desire and the opposition to it, and saw how I was related to everything through the opposites, I felt a new sense of security and also adventure: a whole new world opened up to me. Colors looked brighter, everyday objects like a coffee mug and a pencil took on wonder as I saw they put opposites together; the very ground I walked on seemed more solid. And I learned that my opinion of myself was based on how fair I was, including in my mind, to other people—my family, friends, people on the street. This idea revolutionized my life. Learning that contempt is the cause of mental trouble–from boredom and nervousness to insanity—and hearing criticism of my contempt, my depressions ended completely. My gratitude is enormous for the productive life I have today—which includes teaching high school science using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method and my marriage to consultant and actor Derek Mali which makes me very happy.
IV. Security, Adventure, and the World’s Longest Running Musical
The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt closed in 2002 after running at the Sullivan Street Playhouse for over 41 years. There have been over 11,000 productions of it in the US and 68 other countries. I have cared for The Fantasticks since I first saw it in 1967. With all its charm, the musical does say something about what Aesthetic Realism shows: that contempt falsifies the opposites of security and adventure and makes them fight.
The musical is done on a platform with a very simple setting. Based on Les Romanesques or The Romancers, an 1894 play by Edmond Rostand, The Fantasticks is about a boy and girl—Matt and Luisa—who live next door to each other and fall in love. Their fathers are very happy about this, but are afraid that if they show it, their children will defiantly end the romance. So they build a wall between their houses and pretend to be mortal enemies. Once they are sure their children are in love, they hire a professional, El Gallo, to stage an abduction and plan the following: Matt will save Luisa, the fathers will end their pretended feud, and everyone will live happily ever after. Meanwhile, in plotting to get their children together, the fathers are after security and adventure for themselves through deceiving and managing their children—and the results are not good.
Luisa, the daughter of a button-maker, is a spoiled, selfish, and representative girl who fancies herself a princess. She thinks her surroundings are dull and that life should be much more adventurous. Yet the adventure she wants is not true: it is based, not on her seeing large meaning in the world, but in being made the most important thing in it. This is Rita Gardner singing “Much More”: [“Much More”–1:30.] At the end of the piece she sings, “I want much more than keeping house! Much more! Much more! Much more!” As a teenager, I identified with Luisa and danced around my room singing “Much More,” wondering if I, too, would ever be “kissed upon the eyes.”
In Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes about a girl, Tessie Wilson, who, like Luisa, wants to see life,
in terms of princesses, heroes faultlessly attired, raptures beyond the stars….In the sixteen-year-old mind of Tessie Wilson, a cleavage is proceeding…between…what she sees and what she thinks she deserves to see. It is very likely that she will meet a young man who will act towards her as if she were a being of wonder….The person appealing to the cherished…self of Miss Wilson will, by a logical, spiritual reciprocity, likewise be endowed with a miraculous otherness. [p. 134]
This is how Luisa sees Matt. She is very taken with the idea of a man being in love with her, but she doesn’t see him clearly at all. Matt, the narrator tells us, is “pretty much the same.”
And even though the moonlight abduction is carried off flawlessly and Matt’s heroic rescue of Luisa is successful, their joy is short-lived. Because their romance has not been based on knowledge, on seeing the true mystery and wonder of reality in another person, instead of feeling happily secure, they feel trapped.
Act Two opens the next day with a very different atmosphere. El Gallo as Narrator tells the audience,
Their moon was cardboard, fragile.
It was very apt to fray,
And what was last night scenic
May seem cynic by today.
The play’s not done.
Oh no–not quite,
For life never ends in the moonlit night;
And despite what pretty poets say,
The night is only half the day.
This, I believe, is hinting at the fact that we need to put opposites together: night and day, the exotic and familiar, adventure and security must serve the same purpose. That has not happened, and so there is pain.
Luisa says about Matt, “He looks different in the sunlight…I thought he was taller.” And Matt says, “When you get right down to it, she’s only the girl next door.” They quarrel, and the fathers angrily reveal that the whole abduction was staged. Matt and Luisa are disillusioned and furious. He decides to leave to find what he thinks is real adventure. Luisa says, “I’ll find mine, too. I’ll have an affair!”
A month later Matt hasn’t returned. El Gallo comes to Luisa, who is thrilled to see her “bandit.” She asks, “Have you seen the world?…Take me there!…To the parties! To the world!” In a song called “Round and Round,” he gives her a mask on a stick–a laughing face that “blocks out any…traces of compassion or of horror.” They go to many places, and in each, a man-—who, unbeknownst to Lisa, is Matt-—is being tortured. In Venice, he has been set on fire. Luisa is horrified till she puts on the mask; then she cries, “He’s all sort of orange. Red orange. That’s one of my favorite colors. You look lovely!” I feel this is a tremendous criticism of a false kind of adventure where a person wants to make everything nice and pretty, while not seeing people as real, including their pain.
Soon after this, Matt returns. When Luisa sees how he has suffered, she realizes, too, how cold and selfish she has been. Both of them see each other more clearly and with greater feeling.
The Fantasticks has been tremendously popular. I think part of its appeal is that it is a criticism of selfishness, fake romanticism, and the desire to have one’s own way. A large question the musical brings up is, Can a person be factual and have true wonder at the same time? Can we see a thing or person precisely, and yet with mystery? Can we be secure and free at once? Mr. Siegel said,
Only in aesthetics are security and freedom one. In music, when the notes seem to be the right notes, the firm notes, they also seem to be moving freely. The same note that is the sure, the certain note, is also the free, unlimited note. That is the only way a person can solve the problem of…security and freedom. 
The most famous song from The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember” puts together security and freedom—also pleasure and pain. While it has nostalgia, I think it is not just sentimental. It is also a criticism of the desire in people not to remember accurately, and is a saying, “Try to give value to things you hadn’t seen or wanted to see because you were so wrapped up in yourself. And don’t remember only the nice things—you have to relate both pleasure and pain.” The melody is secure and yearning at once: the first note is sung 4 times before moving freely down the scale; it then rests firmly on a lower note, which also repeats before rising up the scale again. And while the melody does not have a very wide range, when it reaches its highest point you get a feeling that is both expansive and firm—because the phrase is the same melody as the opening phrase, only higher, and it repeats twice, each time descending the scale as it comes to rest. Isn’t that a oneness of freedom and security? Here is the late Jerry Orbach, who played El Gallo in the original 1960 cast, singing “Try to Remember.” [MUSIC—51 sec.]
Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge—rock-solid, kind and stirring—that can teach women how to resolve the fight between security and adventure in their lives—and this is cause for unending, logical celebration!