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!
Feminine unintelligence in a novel of 1913
In The Custom of the Country, the important writer Edith Wharton satirizes an idea of intelligence many people have: being able to calculate one’s way to money and high society. The protagonist is Undine Spragg, a beautiful young woman whose newly wealthy family moves to New York from the Midwest. Her parents agree that she should find a rich husband who can introduce her into society and buy her what she wants—and she wants a lot! Mrs. Wharton’s keen depiction of Undine, with her machinations, illustrates vividly how a woman, thinking she’s very smart, may really be woefully unintelligent.
Undine eagerly accepts a dinner invitation from the sister of a man she met, Ralph Marvell, whose family, she’s assured, is “stylish.” Undine hungers for the new, but not to have it become deeply part of herself. Rather, she wants to grab it, and superficially takes on qualities she thinks will help her to wow and conquer people. Wharton writes:
She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion…thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses.
In her desire to be fashionable, Undine sees no value in the traditional ways of the Marvells. She’s astonished that their home displays no modern inventions such as “a gas-log, or a polished grate with electric bulbs behind ruby glass,” but had instead “an old-fashioned wood-fire,” and though she expected “pretty-colored entrees in ruffled papers,” they served “plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize.” “When a person is after novelty excessively,” said Mr. Siegel, “it’s because the old has not been adequately seen….Intelligence…sees surprise in the customary.” Undine doesn’t; it has her value the wrong things, and as we’ll see, it makes her cruel.
At this first meeting, she wants to impress Ralph and his family, and thinks her beauty is enough. Then, they begin talking about books, the theatre and art exhibits they’ve seen. In a lecture, Mr. Siegel said “Edith Wharton uses expansive metaphors quite carefully,” and we can see it in this description of the conversation, which shows the kindness of the hostess, Mrs. Fairford:
[It] seemed to be a concert and not a solo. She kept drawing in the others, giving each a turn, beating time for them with her smile, and somehow harmonizing and linking together what they said. She took particular pains to give Undine her due part in the performance.
But because she’s been uninterested in knowledge, Undine is at a loss and she’s miffed.
Ralph Marvell is highly educated, and has visited “the great centers of art and ideas.” Yet he knows little of the everyday world, including how to make a living, though he studied law. And he’s unintelligent about women. He convinces himself on very little evidence that Undine, who’s different from the prim society girls he’s expected to marry, is the one for him. Meanwhile, Ralph is a deep character. There was, Wharton writes,
the world of wonders within him….What he most wanted…was to learn and do—to know what the great people had thought, think about their thinking, and then launch his own boat: write some good verse if possible…
Undine isn’t interested in the “world of wonders” in Ralph: it’s simply not her purpose. As a new bride, she’s like a woman today reading advice columns on how to get her husband to adore her. Because this advice has a woman see a man only in relation to herself, and not to see the world of experience and thought in him, it really encourages a woman to be stupid about men.
I had this unintelligent way of seeing when my husband returned from a trip and I was hurt that he hadn’t brought me a special gift. I mentioned this in an Aesthetic Realism class and said I wasn’t proud of my response. Ellen Reiss explained something very important, saying, “Women have judged men on what they gave them, when, how much, for a long time. This is a classic subject women have hurt their lives about.” And she showed that the reason I felt bad wasn’t essentially about gifts but rather about what I want from another person. She asked: “Do you think on the one hand you see Alan Shapiro as a person, and on the other, as someone who should honor you?” Yes, I did. I saw that what I wanted was a tribute to me. While not denying the possible value of a gift, which can have meaning and stand for gratitude, Ms. Reiss said, “The greatest gift Mr. Shapiro can give you is to want to know you.” This kind discussion had me value so much more Alan’s deep, good-natured desire to know who I am and how I see the world, and has me want more than ever to do the same for him.
On their honeymoon, one gift Ralph wants to give to Undine is to show her the glories of the Italian landscape. We can see, in Wharton’s description, that what Ralph is amazed by is the oneness of opposites: the “beauty, changeful, inexhaustible, weaving itself about him in shapes and softness and strength.” But this isn’t what Undine came to Europe to see; she came for fashionable society parties—and to her dismay, she learns they’ve gone in the off-season. She feels stifled, and wants to go to Paris. Ralph realizes “with the sharpness of a knife-thrust” that she’s tired of being alone with him; he’s seeing that “[her] mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie schoolhouse in which she had been educated.”
Undine continues on her ambitious, acquisitive path, and feels cheated when she learns that the Marvells aren’t as wealthy as she’d thought. A worried Ralph anxiously awaits her father’s monthly check to pay her enormous bills. Like many young women, Undine cleverly manipulates her father into giving her what she wants, and has contempt for him when he does. Wharton writes: “She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles: the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold—and he did not know which he dreaded most.”
This attitude toward her father as existing to serve her continues with Ralph. One afternoon, he finds her crying over a letter from her mother. Thinking someone is ill, he tries to soothe her, but she says petulantly, “Oh, they’re well enough—but father’s lost a lot of money…and he can’t send us anything for at least three months.” Ralph shows concern for Mr. Spragg, but she cries, “It’s hard for us”—and asks if his family could send money. “I must have some clothes to go home in.” Wharton describes his reaction:
His heart contracted as he looked at her….Her eyes were like the eyes of an enemy….The necessity [of asking for money] was bitter to him, and Undine’s unconsciousness of the fact hurt him more than her indifference to her father’s misfortune.
“The highest kind of intelligence,” writes Mr. Siegel, “is to understand another’s intelligence.” Because Undine is not interested in this, the marriage is a hollow one.
Are we intelligent about how we want to affect men?
Edith Wharton is truly intelligent as she gives form to her critical seeing of feminine unintelligence and selfishness. For instance, there is this description of Undine, who is keenly aware of her striking beauty, and knows it can have a big effect on men:
She…watched herself approvingly, admiring the light on her hair, the flash of teeth between her smiling lips, the pure shadows of her throat and shoulders as she passed from one attitude to another.
Many women strategically use their bodies to have power over men, and I did. “Do you think you’d like to affect a man in such a way that you can have contempt for him?,” my consultants once asked me. I had, and they asked, “Is it your greatest triumph and greatest defeat all at once?” This described what I felt—and I believe it also describes what went on in Undine Marvell. Though she has many outward victories, we also learn of her inner defeats. She can’t really care for anyone; she’s perpetually dissatisfied, and later, she suffers a breakdown, which I see as coming from the feeling that she couldn’t bear herself for her purposes with people.
Yet she plows ahead. Soon after returning to the States, she gives birth to a son, Paul. But she feels motherhood is an interference, leaves her son’s care to Ralph and his family, and goes about her business. When we next see her three years later, she’s so busy posing for a society portrait, she forgets Paul’s birthday. “Intelligence,” explains Mr. Siegel, “is unfailingly a search for true value; and true value is always an illustration of proportion.” Undine’s disproportionate valuing of her own glory has her minimize the meaning of other people.
This includes Ralph whom she sees, as she sees her father, as existing to supply money for her expenses. She neither notices nor cares that Ralph, who’s now working long hours in a law firm, feels life is draining out of him. Resenting his inability to make a fortune, she pursues the wealthy Peter Van Degen, a married man who had lavished gifts on her—wheedling money out of her father so she can meet Peter in Paris. Now ecstatic in a social whirlwind, she thinks she’s very smart as she calculates her effect on men: “A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the intensity of those she provoked.”
The desire to regulate my sensations, not be too stirred, has been big in me. Early in my knowing of Alan Shapiro, I saw I had a fear of feeling too much for him. Ellen Reiss asked me in a class:
If you’re afraid of large feeling, do you think you see it as accurate? I think you can be afraid you won’t be proud of it because it’s not exact….You can also be afraid of having large emotion because it is exact, and it would get you.
I said I felt I wouldn’t be in control if I were stirred, and Ms. Reiss asked, “Do you think being in control, as you put it, is the ideal of beauty?” It’s not! I’ve seen that the people I respect most show that the world has affected them, stirred them in big ways, and that’s how I want to be! Having big feelings about reality, my husband and other people, is smart and stands for me!
In the novel, Undine is sure that Van Degen will leave his wife to marry her; she files for divorce, expecting him to meet her—but he doesn’t. She later learns why: he found out that when she received an urgent telegram saying Ralph was very ill and pleading with her to return, she ignored it. She’s stunned that a man she thought she’d fooled had the intelligence to object to her coldness.
Undine makes more selfish, stupid choices in this novel than I can discuss here, and they hurt many people—including Ralph, who is so distraught at her relentless manipulation, his life ends tragically. They also make her feel perpetually dissatisfied, driven to feel that she’s not getting what she needs. Yet, as Wharton describes what she’s going after with elegant, satirical style, we see Undine as representing humanity—and, through Aesthetic Realism, we can learn from her mistakes.
“Intelligence,” said Mr. Siegel, “is a kind of justice.” That justice, I’m so happy to tell this audience, is a beautiful, practical, learnable thing. It is what the study of Aesthetic Realism can bring to every person’s life!