What's Best in Us--& How Can We Be True to It?
by Nancy Huntting
From seminar of January 22, 2004, at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
141 Greene St. NYC 10012
When I came to New York City from where I grew up in
Cincinnati, Ohio, I didn't know what was best in me--but even
so, I felt I wasn't true to it. I'd gotten a lot of praise from my
parents and teachers, but at fifteen I wrote to my
best friend that I was a failure.
At 27 this feeling hadn't changed. Though it seemed I
had everything I wanted, including a man who cared for me, I
was very worried I wasn't using my
mind. I felt dull, a shadow of a
person with no energy. Often my arms felt leaden, and it was an effort
just to move. I wondered--what's
I was able to learn what's wrong when I met Aesthetic
Realism. And I can say now with certainty--with a life that's happy and
rich because of it--the best thing
in me and in every person is our
desire to know the world, and honestly like it. It is our deepest
desire, Aesthetic Realism explains--and we need to
understand the opposition in us to this desire. I'll speak about my own
life, what a
young woman is studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and a great
novel: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Women Need to Know
Truth, Eli Siegel defines in his Definitions
and Comment, “is the having of a thing as it is, in mind.” And in
a 1951 lecture he explained: “One thing that all people have in common
is a difficulty about truth...People do want like anything to know
what's true; and without knowing it they shudder and shiver and keep
away from it. The purpose of mind is not to be afraid. It is not to
‘get’ things. The purpose of mind is to find out what things are.”
Mr. Siegel described the deepest desire of a human
being: to like the world on an honest basis, that is, by
seeing it as it truly is. This, I'm grateful to have learned, is the
one way a woman will like herself. A woman's mind will not be satisfied
by anything less. But, because women haven't seen this is what is best
in them, there's been a great deal of pain.
“What's the greatest desire in woman,” Mr. Siegel asked
in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974,“to be complete--or seemingly
happy?” And he asked me in that class, “What is your complete self?”
Though I certainly felt I was incomplete, I had never thought of asking
this. I said, “a person wanting to know.” “Can you put it another
way--'My complete self wants to like the world'?” I felt respected
deeply as Mr. Siegel spoke to me; he had me value my own possibilities
of mind. I now know that I, and every woman, cannot settle for less.
Going after what they think will make them happy, women
do lessen themselves, particularly in the field of love, and they do
have a sense of not being true to themselves. I was torn apart by the
fight between using my mind to know, and the desire to have a man
devoted to me.
Mr. Siegel asked me if I felt I was wholly myself with a
man. No--I never did and I didn't know why. With kindness and
largeness, relating my questions to those written about in the
literature of the world, Mr. Siegel described a purpose women have been
driven by, and despised ourselves for. “Do you believe,” he asked, “you
conquer the world by having a man need you? That feeling is in the
novel by Antoine François Prévost, Manon Lescaut,
The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and in Racine's Phaedre.
The whole universe can take the form of a person. Do you think
something like that is working with you?”
Yes, I came to see it was. And he asked me a question
every woman needs to hear about the man she cares for: “Do you feel you
have a true picture of him?” He continued: “We go from the ideal to the
bestial--do you see him too eulogistically and also as a beast? Does
your anger give him no qualities at all?”
This was exactly what I did! I changed the truth about
a man to suit myself: He had to be a superior being because he was
mine, and should make me feel I was more important than anything else.
When he did not act in keeping with what I created, I was shattered,
wounded, and furious with him. Aesthetic Realism criticised the
contempt that made me not see a man's insides are real, not see his
hopes are as important to him as mine are to me, and that he is against
himself where he is unjust.
In this class Mr. Siegel used Pride and Prejudice
to have me see myself and men more truly. “What did Elizabeth find in Pride
and Prejudice?" he asked me, and he explained:
Darcy was too proud, Elizabeth was
too. As the work goes on Elizabeth finds Darcy also has feelings, is
thoughtful, and not just a pleased aristocrat; and Elizabeth sees her
own haughtiness. Do you...think a man wants very much to be kind?
The answer is yes--it's the best thing in
every man and he's hoping a woman will encourage him to be true to that
What We Can Learn from a
Well Loved Novel
Pride and Prejudice is one of the books
required as study for persons who teach Aesthetic Realism. "Darcy and
Elizabeth," Mr. Siegel said, "explain everybody."
This novel shows the fight about what a woman wants
most: to see what is true, or victories for herself? It's also the
fight about what's the best thing in us. Jane Austen begins the book
with this humorous sentence:
It is a truth universally
acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be
in want of a wife.
The novel is about the Bennet family: Mr. and Mrs.
Bennet and their five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and
Lydia; of Mrs. Bennet, Miss Austen writes in the first chapter, "The
business of her life was to get her daughters married."
The Bennet family first meets Mr. Bingley and his
friend, Mr. Darcy, both single men in possession of good fortunes, at a
local ball. Elizabeth happens to overhear Mr. Bingley urging Mr. Darcy
to dance with her; but Darcy declines, saying, "She is tolerable; but
not handsome enough to tempt me." Mr. Darcy hardly speaks to anyone
there and is pronounced "so high and conceited that there was no
enduring him!" by Mrs. Bennet.
While Elizabeth's friend, Charlotte Lucas, later
One cannot wonder that so very
fine a young man...should think highly of himself. If I may so express
it, he has a right to be proud.
I could easily forgive his pride,
if he had not mortified mine.
"Elizabeth," Mr. Siegel said in a class, "is always
trying to get form out of her contempt." I think this means that she
wants to use her seeing something ugly in a person to be an accurate
critic. Elizabeth Bennet is a character who has affected people very
much because she shows it matters to a woman that she see the
world and other people truly. She can be haughty, but she also has a
keen desire to see what she feels about things, and express her
feelings with form, and she does not see men just as existing to make
her comfortable and important. Meanwhile, she sees Darcy as being
At this point, Elizabeth's philosophic sister, Mary,
observes something which is crucial to the meaning of this novel:
Pride is a very common failing I
believe....there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of
self complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or
imaginary. Vanity and pride are different
things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be
proud without being vain.
The difference between true pride and vanity is the
difference between truth and falsity, and it is what both Darcy and
Elizabeth learn about through each other. "Vanity," writes Mr. Siegel
in Self and World, "is the desire to please oneself though it
may mean the excluding of reality. Pride is the desire to please
oneself through the seeing and including of reality."
Elizabeth is angry with Mr. Darcy because she feels he's
too pleased with himself by excluding the reality of other people. But
her vanity is hurt, and this interferes with her desire to see him
truly. When Charlotte urges she might find Darcy very agreeable if she
danced with him, she responds:
Heaven forbid!--That would be the
greatest misfortune of all!--to find a man agreeable whom one is
determined to hate!
That determination to hate does not represent the best
in us--in fact it stands for the worst. But at the next ball when Darcy
asks her to dance, she accepts. As they dance, Elizabeth reminds Darcy
of something he had said earlier, that he "cannot forget the follies
and vices of others," so quickly, his "good opinion once lost is lost
forever." "You are very cautious, I supppose," she asks, "and you never
allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?" And she expresses her
criticism of him with satiric form: "It is particularly incumbent on
those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly
This is tremendously important. Darcy is doing what
most people do--he has opinions he does not want to change, therefore
they must be right. This is what prejudice is--you "pre-judge" so the
truth will not interfere with what you wish to believe. What Elizabeth
does not see is, in being "determined" to hate Darcy, this is true of
Elizabeth later learns how much her criticism affects
Darcy, and as Mr. Siegel was teaching me, that a man wants to be kind.
Throughout his life Darcy had been flattered by women a great deal, but
as he comes to know Elizabeth, he finds her desire to be sincere and
say what she sees as true, irresistable.
Darcy falls in love: "You must allow me to tell you how
ardently I admire and love you," he tells Elizabeth, to her great
astonishment, and he proposes to her. But he makes a point also of
telling her of his "only natural and just" sense of her
inferiority--her family's "condition in life so decidedly beneath" his
Elizabeth, writes Jane Austen, "could not be insensible
to the compliment of such a man's affection..." However, she gives
Darcy her opinion of his conduct:
From the very beginning...your
manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your
conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such
as to form that groundwork of disapprobation, on which succeeding
events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a
month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I
could ever be prevailed on to marry.
Women Want to Like How
In Aesthetic Realism consultations women learn what is
the best thing in them and how to be true to it. They become better,
kinder critics of themselves and others. I feel tremendously grateful
for the depth and beauty of what I have the privilege to teach as I see
women's lives change to happiness and pride.
Sara Conners is a young woman originally from
Minneapolis, who works as a manager in a bookstore. She told her
consultants she was very worried about her anger with people, how she
could be cutting and sarcastic. She didn't know the reason she was so
against herself was because she wasn't a critic with good will,
especially with the people she was close to and met every day.
Like Elizabeth and Darcy, and most people, she too much
took her first impressions to be the whole truth. Ms. Conners found
flaws quickly, and felt she was deeper and keener than others. We were
criticizing a steep drive in her to have contempt for people, which had
made her lonely and bitter at the age of 25.
In a consultation she told us she had a wonderful
Christmas because, she said sarcastically, she was not with
her family. The conversations her sister and brother usually had at the
dinner table, she told us, "are all about money and how they can make
more of it, so I don't want to be there." "Do you think the way you are
talking now," we asked, " has to do with why you've felt very worried
You get very quickly to 'I don't want to be there.' There's disgust and
contempt in your voice. It happens that the fiction of the world is
peopled with many characters one wouldn't want to spend Christmas with.
At the same time, one likes reading about them. So do you think the way
your sister might see at this time could have a novel around it and
Sara Conners: Umm,
that's how you think about her?
Sara Conners: No, I
don't like thinking about her.
We gave Ms. Conners an important Aesthetic Realism
assignment, to write about a person and try to see him or her as a
novelist would. "Here's a subject for a short story," we said:
are people together for Christmas, and they're talking about making a
lot of money. And then you take each character that evening, thinking
to himself or herself, alone at night. Do you think it would be the
same as the way a person talked at the table, or different?”
Sara Conners: It
would be very different.
Consultants: A person
can talk a certain way, but that's not just what the person is. And
it's not to praise the person, or to condemn the person, but people
exist to be known.
Sara Conners is changing; she's not so quick in her
judgements. She sees more that other people are like herself, with a
whole life and feelings inside.
"I see I was so mean," she told us recently, "and
wrong, about one of the women I work with. Now I'm very affected by
her--I'm interested. And I'm so much happier."
The Desire to Know is the
Most Romantic Thing In the World
"If we are exact with ourselves," Mr. Siegel said in a
and say we are trying to see things
completely and are in the process of doing so, we have a right to say
whether things are good or bad. Until then, we don't have such a
complete right. The right to say that a thing is good or bad depends on
the fulness with which we have tried to see it.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy come to be more exact
with themselves, and not arrogantly to assume the right to say whether
people are good or bad. Their honesty about themselves and increased
desire to know is very moving.
When Elizabeth receives a letter from Darcy, she sees
she's been fooled by Wickham, a man who impressed her as being good as
quickly as Darcy impressed her as being bad, but who in fact lied about
Darcy to her. Jane Austen writes, "She grew absolutely ashamed of
herself." Elizabeth says:
How despicably have I acted!..I, who
have prided myself on my discernment!--I, who have valued myself on my
abilities! ... How humiliating is this discovery!--yet, how just a
humiliation! ... Till this moment, I never knew myself.
This is a woman trying to be exact with herself and
it's thrilling. There is pride as she says "yet, how just a
humiliation! ...Till this moment I never knew myself." There's pride
and humility as one thing--and she's being true to the best thing in
herself. As writer, Jane Austen expresses this in sentences that have a
beautiful, energetic grace, a rhythm that is bold yet also thoughtful
as it speeds and slows, goes on and stops.
The discussion between Elizabeth and Darcy towards the
end of the book Mr. Siegel said, "is so taking...because it is two
people trying to know."
Elizabeth has discovered that, unbeknownst to her and
her family, Darcy has done a great kindness to them, going to much
personal expense to save them from anguish and disgrace. Because she
has wanted honestly to question herself, she is able to have more
accurate and proud emotions, and express them. "Ever since I have known
[of your kindness]," she tells him, "I have been most anxious to
acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it....Let me thank you...in
the name of all my family." Of her haughtiness and misjudgment of him,
she tells him, "I have long been most heartily ashamed." And Darcy says
I have been a selfish being all my
life....spoilt by my parents...who...encouraged...me to...think meanly
of all the rest of the world.… Such I was, from eight to eight and
twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest,
loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson,
hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.
There is beautiful passion here because a man feels
through a woman he has been strengthened, able to see himself and the
world more truly. So different from love and sex as presented in
Cosmopolitan or Redbook, this is the real thing.
"Criticism," Mr. Siegel once said, "is
love," and this book is evidence for that statement. The best thing in
every person--the desire to know and like and be fair to the world and
people outside of us--is what the education of Aesthetic Realism
encourages and strengthens through principles that are solid and true
about women and men, including Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy, Jane Austen,
Sara Conners, me and people everywhere.