including a consideration of the character Roxane from Edmond Rostand’s play
I am proud to tell here about what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism about love. By 19, I already felt love was just not in the cards for me. On the one hand, I thought the problem was, I couldn’t find the right man. But I also felt there was something wrong with me. In a journal at that time, a few months before my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, I wrote: “I’m looking for someone….If only I could be sure who I’m looking for, I could use some initiative. That alone would change my life.”
I learned that, like most women, I was looking for two opposing things from a man, and the jam-up between the two made love impossible. In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1467, Ellen Reiss explains:
We want to love someone. Yet we also want to see the person as existing chiefly to make us important; we judge him on how nice he is to us; we change a human being who was born into the whole world and whom we didn’t know some years ago into someone whose main purpose in life is to honor us.
And though, she explains, “[this] is what people generally take to be love, and we can be atremble with it,…if we see someone, however yearningly, in that fashion, we are against having real love.” The reason is, this way of seeing another person is contempt, and Aesthetic Realism definitely says: contempt is the great enemy of love. “The purpose of love,” Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” “Things as a whole” is another way of saying, the world, and it is this world from which a man comes, and which he represents. A woman needs to feel that in knowing and caring for a man, the vast and various world, the feelings of other people, the past, mean more to her. And she needs to hope that through a man’s effect on her and hers on him, she can be true to herself, more expressed, freer. Learning this has made it possible for me to care truly for a man, Alan Shapiro, musician and teacher, to whom I’m grateful to be married.
What I was looking for in love didn’t begin with men
The fight between wanting to see meaning in the world and wanting people to make much of me was working in me as a child. I was excited when Mrs. Koven, my 6th grade teacher at PS 212 in Brooklyn, passed around binoculars so we could look out our classroom window at the steamships from different countries going up the Narrows Bay, under the Verazzano Bridge, and toward New York Harbor. I learned to recognize the flags of Greece, Italy, Norway and other countries—and loved going to the encyclopedia to look up information about them.
But my interest in knowledge had competition. I also wanted people to tell me how good I was, and often manipulated them into dishing up this praise. I did this with my father, Barney Rosen. He was often angry, and very early, I saw I could get him to soften and give me what I wanted by smiling sweetly and seeming adoring. I felt I had a kind of power over him even my mother didn’t have—and did I feel important! I secretly—and later, not so secretly—made fun of my father for how he gave in. I would be cold and defiant for months at a time, and then cozily devoted to him, in a way that made him furious and was dizzying to both of us.
I tried to get the same kind of praise from other adults. I wanted to make sure my teacher felt I was the nicest child in the class—not rambunctious or selfish like other children. During show and tell, when my classmates brought in new toys or souvenirs from family trips, I told of generous things I’d done, like how I’d gone out of my way to help a sick neighbor—when really, I had done nothing of the kind. “A human being is compelled to love or approve of himself,” explains Mr. Siegel, “but if he does so by means which his critical unconscious cannot justify, he will feel inferior and pained. Self-love, unless it is truly based, is also self-contempt.” This was true of me. When I got the praise I was angling for, I knew I didn’t deserve it, and had a gnawing sense of failure in my relations with people.
Later, as I had to do with men, I continued strategically trying to get what I wanted by seeming to give a man what he wanted—but, as I found out, men were much smarter than I’d thought and they objected, while I felt humiliated. For instance, when I was in France with a friend and we needed a ride to another town, I thought I knew just how to get it. I began flirting with a man I’d met earlier who had a car, and as he seemed to weaken and fall under what I smugly felt was “my spell,” I asked if he could give us a ride. He said yes, and I felt powerful. We were to meet him the next morning on the steps of the church. We waited and waited. He never came; I was mortified, and felt like an idiot.
I didn’t know how much this contemptuous way of seeing people as existing to praise me, while I put on a show of great feeling, hurt me as to love. Studying Aesthetic Realism, how I saw the world and people changed very much, and this enabled me to have a career I cherish, as a high school English teacher using Aesthetic Realism as my teaching method. I am immensely proud that I’ve had a good effect on my students through encouraging them to care for words and literature.
But when it came to men, there were ways I hadn’t wanted to change. Some years ago, when a friend was about to be married, I used it to bemoan the fact that I wasn’t seeing anyone. As I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss kindly asked me if the reason I felt bad was that I was looking for the wrong thing and calling it love. She said, “The question is, Do you want to see value in people and care for them, or do you want someone to make much of you?” “I think it’s been the second,” I said. I was learning about the purpose I needed to have with a man to feel proud. Ms. Reiss continued:
[If you said] “I am looking at men and I truly have more respect for them, I like more the way I see them and I hope to be fairer to them, and this is where I feel I’m not fair”—you would be exhilarated. You haven’t wanted to see that there is an arrangement here you have had something to do with. Is that possible?
“It’s very possible,” I said. I began to see that what I’d been going after with men wasn’t love at all, and I changed my purpose. In conversations, instead of calculating how I could get a man to succumb to me, I used my mind to try to know who he was, how he saw himself and the world, what was in his life—and for the first time, I had real hope about love.
What a woman of France was looking for in love
I speak now about the woman courted in one of the famous romances in world drama. She is Roxane, in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac—a play my students and I care for very much. Roxane is mixed up about love, as many women today are. She wants two different things from a man, and they that stand for opposites that trouble women in how they see men and how men see them: appearance—what is on the surface—and depth. On the one hand, she wants to say she loves a man because he is handsome and praises her. Yet she also wants to have an emotion that takes in all of herself, to feel a man has grandeur, sincerity, a love for what is beautiful in this world. She hopes, as Ellen Reiss writes in TRO 1210, “to use thinking about him and being thought of by him to have her thought be better, fuller, deeper, fairer about everything.” In her confusion about which approach to love she should go by, Roxane is representative, and the dramatic way Rostand presents it has made this play enduringly popular.
Set in France in 1641, the play opens in a theatre just before a performance. A young soldier, Baron Christian de Neuvillette, asks the name of a woman he has seen there, whom he says he loves, though they’ve never spoken. Soon, we meet her. Roxane, intelligent and very beautiful, is in a situation many women, then and now, would envy: many men seem to adore her. There is Christian; there is the Comte DeGuiche, a powerful noble who is her escort; there is the pompous actor Montfleury who is about to take the stage. And though she doesn’t know it, there is another man who loves her—her distant relative Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano has many qualities women look for in men. He is courageous and noble; he is a kind and generous friend; he is learned and witty, and cares deeply for words, feeling they should be used with style. But outwardly, he’s not attractive; he has an extraordinarily large nose, which he says, “marches on / Before me by a quarter of an hour!”—and because of this, he thinks Roxane wouldn’t care for him, and so he doesn’t tell her of his feelings. One day, she asks to meet him, and he begins to hope—but afraid he won’t be able to speak, he writes her a passionate letter expressing what is in his heart. When they meet, they reminisce about their childhood together; she shows tender affection for him, and says she has something to tell him.
I … love someone.
Cyrano: Ah! …
Roxane: Someone, who does not know.
Cyrano: Ah! …
Roxane: But he will know
Some day … [He] loves me too,
And is afraid of me, and keeps away,
And never says one word.
Cyrano: Ah! …
Roxane: And such a man!
He is proud—noble—young—brave—beautiful—
Cyrano: (turns pale; rises) Beautiful!—
That word, “beautiful,” dashes Cyrano’s hopes. Roxane is understandably attracted to someone handsome; a person’s appearance is, after all, what we see first. But, like a woman today, she could be asked: Aren’t you a little quick to say you love him? Do you know him? “Love is in exact proportion to accurate knowledge,” writes Mr. Siegel.
To say that love—as many have intimated—is based on mystery, dimness, blindness, blurriness, though it may sound fetchingly “romantic,” is really to do away with the true mystery, the true expansiveness, the true grandeur, the true intensity of love.
Unaware of Cyrano’s feelings, she asks him to befriend Christian, keep him safe, and have him write to her. He agrees, but when the two men meet, and Christian learns Roxane wants him to write to her, he says, “Once I write, that ruins all!… / I am a fool!… / With any woman—paralyzed, / Speechless, dumb…. /….I wish I had your wit–.” “Borrow it, then!—” says Cyrano. “Would you dare repeat to her the words / I gave you, day by day? / … / Come, shall we win her both together?” Christian goes along with this, and Cyrano gives him the letter he had written, saying it will fit her “like her own glove”—which is truer than Christian knows.
So begins this famous courtship. Clearly, what is happening is deceptive, but I think Edmond Rostand is using this relation of two different men to show something important, which Aesthetic Realism articulates clearly so people can really learn it: what makes a person lovable is the way opposites are one in him—mind and body, surface and depth; the warmly personal at one with the meaning, the grandeur of the wide, impersonal world. I have learned: a person is beautiful to us who is handsome inwardly, who sees kindly, and this shows in how he expresses himself.
As Roxane receives letter after eloquent letter, she falls more deeply in love with the man who wrote them, thinking it is Christian. But though grateful at first for Cyrano’s help, one night Christian decides he no longer needs him: now that Roxane loves him, he can take over. But he is wrong. As they speak to each other in the darkness, Roxane says: “Let us stay / Here, in the twilight… / Now tell me things…. / Speak to me about love… / …Be eloquent.” It appears that she is fishing for elaborate praise of herself, for Christian to tell her she is wonderful; however, if that were all she wanted, she would be elated when he says, “I love you….I adore you.” But she is not satisfied, she wants something more. “Improvise! Rhapsodize!…I ask for cream / You give me milk and water.” The cream she is asking for is the richness of feeling and expression that is Cyrano’s.
In an Aesthetic Realism class soon after Alan Shapiro and I began seeing each other, when I was having new and big feeling about him, I’m grateful Ellen Reiss spoke to me about opposites every woman needs to put together in love: great particularity and the largeness of things. She asked, “Do you think—and this is what love has—you want to have as great emotion as possible, and you also want to be as exact as possible?”
Yes! That is what I wanted! She continued, describing a frequent mistake women make, as I had: “People can want to have the grand passion, and not have it exact, because then their self-love is not at stake.” And Ms. Reiss, who has greatly encouraged my care for poetry, asked, “Are you proud if you’re moved by a line of poetry?” I said yes, and she asked, “Do you think it’s possible to be moved by a person in a similar way…and be proud?” A woman, she explained, can look at a man all in a tumult and say, “Look what I’ve done,” or she can feel that as she’s close to him, she’s respecting the world more. That’s what I feel as I’m in my husband’s embrace. It is light years away from what I once thought love was, and so much more romantic!
In the play, Roxane feels there is something large lacking in Christian, because of his expression. He sees it, and says, “I know; I grow absurd.” [Roxane:] “And that displeases me / As much as if you had grown ugly.”
In one of the most moving scenes, Cyrano helps Christian once again; he stands under Roxane’s balcony and provides him with words expressing his own love for her, which Christian repeats, pausing to wait for each new line. She’s affected, but puzzled by Christian’s halting speech. Then, deciding the process is too cumbersome, Cyrano puts on Christian’s hat and, hidden by the darkness, and trying to imitate Christian’s voice, speaks directly to Roxane of his love for the first time. He is eloquent, passionate.
Roxane: Your words to-night
Cyrano: (imitating Christian) Through the warm summer gloom
They grope in darkness toward the light of you.
Look at you, but there’s some new virtue born
In me, some new courage…. Can you feel
My soul, there in the darkness, breathe on you?
—Oh, but to-night, now I dare say these things—
I … to you … and you hear them! …
It is my voice, mine, my own,
That makes you tremble there in the green gloom
Above me …
Roxane: Yes, I do tremble…and I weep …
And I love you … and I am yours … and you
Have made me thus!
Roxane is swept—and it is by something very large. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that when a person is trying to be sincere through words, that person is joining in a tremendous way his own deepest, most personal self and the impersonal world—represented by words come to by unknown people of the past. These are, we know, Cyrano’s words—but Roxane, thinking they are Christian’s, allows him to climb up to her balcony, and they kiss.
She sees better what she is truly looking for in love
Deception and sincerity are throughout Cyrano de Bergerac. Right after this scene, a monk delivers a letter from the Comte DeGuiche, another of Roxane’s suitors and commander of the regiment in which Cyrano and Christian are serving. She despises DeGuiche, who feels his position gives him the right to use her for his pleasure, and reading that he wants her to meet him for a tryst, she is angry. Instead, she pretends to read the letter aloud, saying it instructs the monk to marry her and Christian. Just after the ceremony, DeGuiche arrives. Enraged, and feeling that if he can’t have Roxane, no one should, he has his revenge—commanding the regiment to leave immediately for the front. Cyrano promises Roxane that Christian will write to her.
The war drags painfully on. Meanwhile, without Christian’s knowledge, Cyrano has written Roxane every day for a month, braving enemy lines to send the letters. As she reads them, she sees she’s been unjust, and feels she must speak to Christian; so—despite the danger of traveling through a battle zone—she goes to the front. She says to Christian:
Forgive me …
For being light and vain and loving you
Only because you were beautiful ….
Afterwards I knew better.
As she expresses her regret for the superficial way she has seen her husband, we respect her. She says:
You do not altogether know me…Dear,
There is more of me than there was…
Truly!…If you were less
Lovable—…Less charming—ugly even—
I should love you still.
Hearing this, Christian knows it is Cyrano she truly cares for. He sees, too, that Cyrano loves her, and insists that he tell her. Here, Christian is at his best. He says to Cyrano: “Shall I ruin your happiness, because / I have a cursed pretty face? That seems / Too unfair!” But just as Cyrano is about to tell Roxane of his love, Christian is killed, and Cyrano feels now he can never tell her.
It is 15 years before she finds out. One late afternoon, Cyrano—who has been mortally wounded—comes to visit Roxane, who doesn’t know he is dying. He asks to read Christian’s last letter, which she carries at her breast. Roxane is moved as he reads it aloud, but when darkness falls, and he continues as if he were still reading, she realizes he is the true author of this letter, and all the others. With all the sadness of this moment, we feel also the triumph of her discovering the man she has loved all along.
Aesthetic Realism shows: What women are looking for in love—the most strengthening, the most romantic, the most exciting thing—is to like the world, to be fair to it, through a person standing for that world in a big and true way. Our need to be fair to the world and the human beings who inhabit it along with ourselves, is also the beautiful, moment-to-moment emergency for everyone’s life, and for our nation, and the whole world. That is why Aesthetic Realism, with its understanding of life and love, has to reach people everywhere now.