.I once felt that the way I went from sweet softness to brittle hardness, from toughness to soothing tenderness, from anger to charm, made no sense. And, I know the tremendous relief of learning from Aesthetic Realism that this painful rift can end. Eli Siegel understood and explained a fundamental debate that goes in every self, between our hope to like the world honestly, see it with meaning; and the hope to have contempt—to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Aesthetic Realism taught me that a woman will feel integrated, and increasingly like how hardness and softness are in her, when her purpose in everything she does is to like the world and be fair to it.
Growing up in Springfield, Missouri I wanted to be a kind person and did nice things for people, but it was mostly out of obligation, and the strong hope of being liked and praised. In my high school yearbook a classmate wrote “You’re the sweetest person I ever met, stay as sweet as you are.” Yet, in a photograph my girlfriend Sheila took of me glaring into the camera with a stony face, it was clear something else was going on.
In Mr. Siegel’s essay “Medusa is a Nice Girl,”
he refers to the snake haired woman in Greek mythology whose looks turn
men into stone, he describes a fight that can be in any girl and was raging
in me. He writes: .
I tell something about the drama of hardness and softness in my own life, I will also speak of a character in the novel Eugenie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac.
.As a child I would explore the pasture behind our house looking for arrowheads and interesting rocks, and sometimes I would find a fossil! It filled me with wonder to think about how a little leaf or insect, alive millions of years ago was now imprinted into hard rock. I also liked taking tap dance lessons and doing the “shuffle, hop, step” routine—the same foot softly brushing the floor with the toe, then coming down hard on the ball of the foot. The soft shuffle and the hard tap served one purpose in a dance, and I felt proud as I used my feet to be exact. This, I would learn years later from Aesthetic Realism, represented the desire in me to see the world with form and meaning, to like it. But the same feet I used in behalf of respect in dancing, I also used to angrily put the world in its place with contempt. Though I could be sweet and polite, I threw tantrums when I didn’t get my way—once kicking the car window so hard it broke and at another time, kicking the vacuum sweeper with such force I hurt my toe.
After school during the week I sometimes went to work
with my mother, a nurse who took care of elderly persons in a nursing home.
On weekends we often went to rodeos, where my father, a cowboy, rode in
various events. From very early I felt the way my parents would go
from being affectionate with each other to being angry and coldly distant
was painful and foolish, and I was scornful of them both. In my mind,
I came to feel I needed to harden myself, to remain intact and not let
things get to me. While preparing for this paper I learned from my
mother, Beverly Burk, that at the age of five I told her I didn’t need
her anymore and didn’t like to be held or hugged by my family. I
needed to know what Mr. Siegel explains in his essay:
I so wanted to be liked! I thought my statuesque manner of walking, which I practiced assiduously in front of the mirror, would impress the popular clique of girls I wanted to belong to. But I hated the way I was insincere, arranging myself, changing my opinions depending on who I was with, and I was often agitated, sometimes soothing myself by eating whole packages of cookies. With boys and later men, though outwardly I tried to seem soft and yielding, flirting and sometimes giving them expensive gifts, I inwardly felt rigid and unmoved. When one high school boyfriend told me that I was a tease, I felt cheap; and when another said I “kissed liked a dead fish,” I was devastated.
By the age of 13 I was beginning to feel I was incapable of being deeply affected by anything—the piano and singing, which I had studied and given up; or anyone, including a man I hoped to care for. Meanwhile, I had a growing interest in sculpture, and began studying art after high school. In the years that followed I gave and got much pain in love, including a marriage that ended in divorce.
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation when I was
26 which I had by telephone from Missouri, I heard across a distance of
a thousand miles questions that understood me so deeply and began to change
the direction of my life. My consultants asked: .
Hearing this question, my heart began beating with new hope. "Yes that bothers me a lot,” I said.
As I studied in telephone consultations, and later in person here, I was given the beginning Aesthetic Realism assignment to write one thing I liked in the outside world each day. Once when I wrote about a beautiful fall day which was crisp and sunny and the air had both sharpness and warmth, my consultants asked, “Are those opposites you are trying to put together in yourself?” Yes, they were.
And when I was assigned to write a soliloquy of my mother and father at the age of 18, I began to see them for the first time as people in their own right, with hopes and fears, longings and disappointments. This made for a new respect and care for them. As my mother saw how I was becoming less selfish, needing and welcoming her perception and criticism, she joined me in the study Aesthetic Realism and I love her for it. The thick padding I thought would be wrapped around me forever began to drop away, and I was affected by the world in new exciting ways, through books, art, music. Colors looked brighter to me, sounds were more vivid. I began to feel really hopeful about love.
Eugenie Grandet, the 1833 novel by the great French author Honoré de Balzac, shows the fierce mix up in his title character Eugenie between hardness and softness. And through the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism we can learn from choices she makes that harden her to the world and people.
For 23 years Eugenie Grandet has lived a sheltered life in a small French village with her parents. Her father, Monsieur Grandet, has amassed a fortune, and is a ruthless miser. As he scrimps on expenses--allows a fire only during the coldest of winter months, rations candles and flour enough for one loaf of bread a day--he is obsessed with gold, which he has in vast quantities. The only two things in the world that mean anything to him are his money and Eugenie, who is his sole heiress. Every year on her birthday he gives his daughter a gift of gold coins which she keeps in a little velvet bag in her room.
Eugenie, rather naïve and accepting of her father’s ways, spends most of her time with her mother laboring arduously to mend the household linen and to knit sleeves and stockings to keep them warm in winter. But what is going on in her mind? I have seen that when a young woman seems to be acquiescent and yielding, she is likely inwardly angry. Mr. Siegel explains in his essay: “And if a girl can be angry,” “she can want to maintain herself against what is inimical.”
One evening, Eugenie’s cousin Charles arrives unexpectedly
from Paris, and becomes the bright spot in what Balzac calls her “monotonous
existence”. Charles is handsome and gallant. Balzac’s prose
is a beautiful oneness of hardness and softness, keenness and compassion.
Eugenie, he writes: ..
Charles does represent a sight of a wider world to Eugenie—of Parisian excitement and elegance, and she is smitten with him at first sight. But Charles, we learn, is a spoiled dandy, raised in privilege and excess. He sees himself as a cut above his country cousin and the next morning at breakfast seeing the house in daylight asks: “‘Do you always live here’… finding the room even more hideous… than it had seemed by candlelight the evening before.”
When Charles learns that his father has become bankrupt
and committed suicide, Eugenie is sympathetic and gives her cousin “the
most loving and tender solicitude.” When a woman’s desire to have
a man runs ahead of her desire to know him it is sure to make for disaster.
In James and the Children Mr. Siegel explains:
..Eugenie is deceived. While Charles seems utterly shaken by his father’s death, she does not see that he is more devastated by the fact that he is now penniless. Balzac hints that she has some criticism of Charles but swiftly tries to make excuses, endowing the “man of her choice” with only fine qualities. With flattering and calculating self pity, Charles writes a letter to his lover, Annette, in Paris telling her that he can no longer maintain his extravagant lifestyle, thus must say good bye. Eugenie finds and reads the letter while Charles is sleeping, and we see through Balzac’s keen observation that something other than benevolent softness is driving Eugenie—“Must I give him up already?” she thinks.
When Eugenie realizes that Charles needs money to pay
many debts “feminine pity,” Balzac writes, “that most insidious emotion,
takes possession of her heart.” Eugenie gives Charles all her gold.
At first he refuses, but finally accepts. Balzac writes: .
..From this point on Charles begins to wear his “mourning more lightly.” Charles and Eugenie now spend many tender moments together. And when he leaves France for the East Indies to work, they swear their love to each other forever.
Eugenie has made the mistake of women throughout time. She is using a man to be less interested in and quietly to harden herself against the world.
Like Eugenie, I once felt that a sign of how much I loved a man was in how much I was consumed in my thoughts about him. In a typing class I missed the lesson completely because I was typing my boyfriend’s name over and over. My consultants asked me: “Do you think in your doings with men you have wanted to mold them?” Yes, I said; and they asked, “Do you want to have the same purpose with a man as you do as a sculptor with a piece of stone—to bring out beauty and strength?”
In the novel, though seven years go by with no word from Charles, Eugenie remains faithfully devoted. But, Charles has not been pining away for her. He has been making a fortune in the African slave trade.
Balzac keenly reveals to us the disaster taking place in Eugenie as she, absorbed in her obsession with a man whom she does not know, hardens and dulls herself to the world around her, welcoming contempt. Her father dies; she inherits the Grandet fortune, and eligible men greedy for her money, flatter and pay homage to her nightly with the hope of having her hand in marriage. But writes Balzac; she made up her mind to turn an impenetrable face to the world.” [and] “let no trace of the bitter storm in her heart appear on her calm face. Her unhappiness was concealed beneath a mask of politeness.
And even as Eugenie consents to marry a man of the village she does so only on the condition that she remain a virgin. Balzac writes: She “kept her soul unspotted by contact with the world, [and had] all an old maid’s rigidity.” In his essay Mr. Siegel explains “When we are angry, with the desire to maintain ourselves, rigidity is employed.”
Aesthetic Realism taught me that the reason I gave and received so much pain in love was because I didn’t have good will. Like Eugenie Grandet, I wanted a man to adore me while I remained aloof and intact.
.In an early consultation I was asked: .
I had! I would act sweet and coy to get a man’s adoration then was hurt or angry is I didn’t get it. While I thought I could charm my way with any man, I also often thought about having fights, planning what I was going to say so that I could feel I got one up on him. Once, when having dinner with friends in a restaurant, I politely excused myself, drove home, called a man I had been seeing, cursed him out then returned to dinner, feeling victorious. But I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to leave the house for days, and could not look this man in the eye the next time I saw him.
What I am learning from Aesthetic Realism is enabling me to feel, increasingly with every year, that I can have a good affect on a man and that a man can add to me.
In the summer of 1992, I met and began to know Jaime Torres, originally from Puerto Rico who was studying Aesthetic Realism. I respected Jaime, who is a podiatrist for his passionate feeling that ethics be the basis of health care in our nation. More than I knew, however, I was in a debate between wanting to care for a man and wanting to keep myself to myself; and though I felt I was just yearning to be asked out, somehow it didn’t happen.
In a consultation I spoke about my distress. My consultants asked me “Do you like to intimidate men.” Yes, I think I do, I answered. And they continued, “Does every man you know, know it?” This was a surprise, but I saw that it was true. And hearing this question I felt inspired to change, something that Jaime noticed. He spoke to me about how he saw my “I don’t need any one, I am happy the way I am” attitude. And he encouraged me to like the world in new ways—through learning about the land, culture and music of his native Puerto Rico, and through the Spanish language. Through knowing and being close to him I have more feeling about other people, including the students I teach.
I am so happy to say that Jaime and I will soon celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary. Together we are studying in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by Ellen Reiss, who is one of the kindest teachers ever. In a discussion years ago she asked me: “Do you think you are married to an art situation?”: and she encouraged me to study the opposites in Jaime as a means of knowing him more deeply and seeing how he is related to all people and the culture of the world. I saw, and happily continue to see, how he is a relation of surface and depth, humor and seriousness, logic and emotion, liveliness and thoughtfulness.
We are both in the midst of this most romantic study and our lives are so rich. I have seen that good will—which Mr. Siegel said is the “tempered oneness of criticism and caress, “exactness and devotion”—is the one purpose that will have us honestly proud of how hardness and softness are in us—and I want every woman to know this! .
Originally presented at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City..
(c) by Donita Ellison. For permission to reprint please contact me by email: DonitaEllison@msn.com.