up, I wanted to think I was good, but I can’t remember being
generous in any deep or steady way. I did have kind feelings for
animals. And I helped my mother by setting the table (grudgingly) and
generally behaving. But I liked being served, and got nearly everything
I wanted in terms of toys, clothes, ballet and piano lessons, and lots
liked school, and it was there I gave myself most: to learning. I
remember wanting to be fair to words—spell them correctly, use them
grammatically—and I loved to read. When we try to be fair to something,
I later learned from Aesthetic Realism, we’re truly selfish, truly take
care of ourselves.
I mainly felt the world was a harsh, competitive place I had to hide
from and outwit. While I had friends and was fairly popular, I saw
myself as superior to most people and had a self-centered, unjust way
of seeing that made me cold to others’ feelings. Writes Eli Siegel:
chief reason for the winning out of selfishness so far is man’s feeling
that he is accompanied by a world hostile to himself and which he has
to defeat....Once we are clear that it is not sensible for us to fight
the world the way we have, selfishness will have received a central
blow. [TRO 173]
my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked what I thought of
the world, and my initial response was: “I don’t think about it.” I
added: “I’m mostly concerned with myself.”
I said I was afraid of the world, and my consultants asked: “Do you
think you came to a picture of things that had too much contempt in
NH. I don’t think I
would have seen it as contempt.
People don’t, but contempt is a separation of ourselves from the world.
Do you think there’s any relation between contempt and fear?
NH. There could be.
If you’re fair to something, would you be less likely to feel
afraid of it? Is there a greater chance of being afraid if one is
I saw the logic right away. It was the beginning of a central change in
me: to wanting to be fair to people and more critical of myself.
Selfishness in Love
saw myself as wanting to please the man of my choice—I thought about
him all the time, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Yet this
thought wasn’t in order to know him; it was about what he could do
person in my past about whom perhaps I have the most regret, I’ll call
Tad. At college, he wrote some verses to me and I was thrilled—no other
man had done that! I thought he was adventurous—he’d gone across the
West on a motorcycle. He’d tell people he was a Hungarian novelist
named Ilya Fogarosi. I thought this was wonderfully clever; it didn’t
occur to me there was anything wrong in fooling people.
graduated in 1967, during the Vietnam War, and, knowing he’d be
drafted, entered Navy Officer Candidate School. A year later he was
sent to Vietnam. I am ashamed I didn’t protest that war but saw it only
as a personal interference. I was utterly cold to Vietnamese parents
and children who were being bombed, napalmed, murdered: my selfishness
made them nonexistent. But Tad, whom I supposedly “loved,” wasn’t real
to me either. When he didn’t write I was hurt; I didn’t think about
what he was going through. That fall I got a new boyfriend, more
handsome and impressive, I thought, than Tad. Then, when Tad returned
from Vietnam and wanted to visit me, I agreed to see him one more time
because I “felt sorry for him.” My selfishness of then is staggering to
years later I began to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel, and I saw
in him a beautiful accuracy and generosity. In one discussion he asked
me whether I thought there was any true love in me, and how it would
show itself. He explained:
Love is defined two ways
by Aesthetic Realism: 1) Love is proud need; and 2) Love is ecstasy
through good will.
then, I’d spent three or four turbulent years with a man I’ll call Ray
Martin. I had ended the relationship, yet didn’t understand why I could
still feel I wanted Ray even though I was so angry with him. Mr. Siegel
asked, “Is there any greater comfort than owning a person whom you
desire?” “Yes,” I answered. And he said, with humor: “Do you really
think so? Don’t be an idealist. We make a symbol of somebody and it’s
irretrievable. Do you believe you conquer the world by having Mr.
Martin need you?” “Yes,” I said.
As I came to see it was the
feeling of conquest over the world that I missed, not the man, my
turmoil about Ray ended.
love, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is encouraging a person to care
for the world. Doing this is at once generous and truly selfish.
& the Fight between Ecstasy & Ethics
I speak now about one
of the works Mr. Siegel mentioned, Manon Lescaut, written by
the Abbé Prévost in 1731. It has inspired several ballets, and operas,
including by Massenet and Puccini.
Manon Lescaut is 17 years
old and very beautiful, described by an
observer at the beginning of the novel as having “an innate sweetness
and modesty.” We see her throughout the rest of the book through the
eyes of the handsome young Chevalier des Grieux, who tells their
history. In pursuit of Manon, he dishonors his family and defies all
his own scruples. You’re shocked by his actions, but you also deeply
commiserate. “Pity and condemnation are often felt as one thing in the
novel,” Eli Siegel wrote in an issue of The Right of Aesthetic
Realism to Be Known about Manon, titled “Prose and Girl.”
The novel has a style that
is “beautifully accurate,” Mr. Siegel says,
and he describes its depth and meaning for us: “Mlle. Lescaut…is not
spared that fierce and subtle and wide test of humanity, conflict as to
what kind of person one wants to be, conflict every day as to what it
is best to do.” He explains:
is about the conflict between ecstasy and ethics. In good prose, the
Abbé Prévost…writes about this conflict and wonders at it, as we all
often abets selfishness, and men and women have been driven in love in
ways they later regret. The fight in the Chevalier and Manon shows the
presence of ethics in them—and ethics, Aesthetic Realism explains, is
the world working in us.
Chevalier des Grieux, respected as a sensible student of philosophy, is
returning home when he first sees Manon: “So charming was she, that…I
found myself suddenly aflame to the pitch of ecstasy and madness.” He
helps her escape being taken to a convent, and they travel to Paris. He
has to trick and “get rid” of a dear friend of his, Tiberge, to do so,
and then, finding himself alone in the room of an inn with Manon, he
heart swelled…, a delicious warmth ran through every vein. I was in a
kind of transport which took from me for a time the power of speech,
and expressed itself only in my eyes.
Mlle. Manon Lescaut, for this she told me was
her name, seemed well content with this effect of her charms. She
seemed…no less moved than I was: she confessed to me that she thought
me amiable, and that she would be enchanted to owe me her liberty.
She wished to know who I was, and the
knowledge increased her affection, for, not being herself of rank
though of good enough birth, she was flattered at having made a
conquest of such a lover.
now can recognize these feelings: Manon is “well content with this
effect of her charms” and “flattered at having made a conquest of such
a lover.” But we haven’t realized that it may not be the man himself
but our effect, our conquest, that pleases us most. This was true of
me, and one of the most important things I learned.
Sweetness & Strategy
After three weeks living together in Paris, the Chevalier’s money
begins to run out. When he tells the lovely Mlle. that he’s been
thinking of reconciling with his father, “Manon received my suggestion
coldly.” In this abrupt sentence is the first sign of something other
than sweetness in Manon.
has important relevance to women right now. I think Manon responds
coldly because she feels the Chevalier’s family is a rival to her power
over him. I once felt that everything else a man was affected by was a
rival. Selfishness has us want to own a man, which means we do not care
about what’s best for him.
doesn’t occur to Manon, as it didn’t to me, to ask: How does the
Chevalier see this important person in his life? Is it accurate? Can he
see his father more deeply? Instead she tells him she’ll get money from
relations of hers.
Shortly, however, he
suspects what at first he cannot believe: she’s seeing a wealthy older
man, M. de B…. And this man, it turns out, has, with Manon’s
cooperation, notified his father. At dinner one night, she weeps and
won’t tell him why, then runs from the room, just before his father’s
servants come in, seize him, and take him home. Manon’s weeping shows
the conflict in her “as to what kind of person [she] wants to be.”
“Manon is a person who is displeased with herself,” Mr. Siegel
explained in another lecture, “though the author doesn’t make this as
clear as he might. She accepts the love of the chevalier, but she's out
also to pain him.”
The Chevalier is confined under close watch at home, and eventually
decides to study for the Holy Orders. Just as he thinks he’s forgetting
Manon, she attends his public examination at the Sorbonne, and then
visits him. “Dazed” by seeing her, he’s also furious: “False Manon! Ah,
False! False!” he cries in anguish. Yet, she has “an air so delicate,
so sweet….Her whole face seemed to me one enchantment.”
By the end of this reunion,
at her suggestion, he abandons religion and, with the money Manon has
from M. de B…, the two of them flee again.
adventures that make up the rest of the novel include schemes, which
the Chevalier convinces himself he must enter into, to prevent Manon
from suffering a moment’s poverty. “However faithful and however fond
she might be in good fortune,” he explains: “one could not count on her
To be continuously amused was so necessary to her that
failing it one could count not at all on her humor or her inclinations….
She would have preferred me to the whole earth, given a modest fortune;
yet I never doubted but that she would abandon me for some new M. de B…
support Manon financially, he learns how to cheat at cards, and then,
with great unwillingness, joins Manon and her brother in plots to rob
rich men who think they’re securing Manon as a heavenly mistress.
Chevalier, all the while, is in doubt how much Manon loves him—this
sweet girl who, Prevost makes clear, enjoys making fools of her
conquests. If we think we are better than Manon, we should go slow.
Perhaps we haven’t engaged in robbery, but haven’t women enjoyed
Chevalier and Manon are caught and imprisoned twice, yet he commits
ever-more terrible crimes to free himself and rescue her. Once so high,
Manon is now very low: chained at the waist, being deported to America,
she’s despairing, and Prevost has us feel great pity. The Chevalier is
free only due to his father’s influence, and says, to the observer
mentioned before: “I then resolved to follow her, should she go to the
ends of the earth.”
Learning this, Manon is profoundly affected. And as
they disembark together in that distant land called New Orleans, she
says to him:
I am my own judge….I have
done you injuries that
you could not have forgiven me unless out of the utmost goodness. I
have been fickle and light, and even loving you madly as I always have,
I was wholly graceless.
But you could not believe
how I have changed. The tears which you have so often seen me shed
since we left France have never once been for my own misfortunes.…I
have only wept out of tenderness and compassion for you. I cannot be
comforted for having hurt you for single moment in my life.
When, at the
very end, Manon, only 19, dies, it makes for tears. There’s been a
change in her; but it came too late. The Chevalier and Manon are both
selfish in different ways, and it makes for tragedy. There’s also
generosity in them, and here, at the last, the Chevalier stands, I
believe, for the world that is always with us—that never gives up on us.
A Woman of Our Time
Explaining how true selfishness is also generosity, Eli Siegel writes
in Self and World: “To be selfish is to be the whole self; to be
the whole self is to have a sense of otherness.”
Lacey Fairfield* was 23
when she began learning this in Aesthetic Realism consultations. She
had grown up in North Carolina, cared for music, and was now working
for a real estate firm. She was pretty, and spoke in a lively way. But
she told us there had been a lot of pain with men. “My friends think
I’m very successful,” she said with a quick laugh—yet, she continued,
there were times recently when she felt like crying and didn’t know
why. We asked, “Do you think as you assert yourself and charm people,
you’re at ease?” “No,” she said, “I’m not.”
She told us that early in
her life she had “a feeling of being privileged” and was “stuck up.”
Consultants. Is there
a sense of superiority to the world that you have? Do people feel
you’re too aloof?
that’s true. I am too aloof—and also afraid.
job was to have Ms. Fairfield see the difference between false
superiority and the honest confidence she could have through knowing
the world and liking things, a purpose that would make herself and
others strong, including a man.
you think,” we asked in one consultation, “that through your mind
things have more reality or less reality?” She said often they had
less—“Everyday things don’t mean enough to me.” We began to show her
that the way to see more meaning was to see the opposites in reality
and in people. We gave her an assignment to ask herself, as she had to
do with a man, what opposites he was trying to put together.
Fairfield began seeing Daniel Hale, a science teacher. She wrote—and
these represent opposites—“he gets true pleasure out of
being exact.” And she told us, “He’s been critical of the way I
can be mocking.”
Consultants. Do you
want him to encourage you to be more accurate about other people and
Fairfield is using her mind in a new way. She did other important
assignments: she wrote a monologue of her mother at age 18; she wrote
on “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Knowing Myself”; she read
Dickens’ David Copperfield for the purpose of being
sensible about men. She wrote to us:
Realism is the grandest and most practical body of knowledge. … Through
it, I changed from an increasingly cold, jaded woman to one who wants
to have a good effect on other people. … I am able to use my mind in a
way I wasn’t able to before. … My life has changed, and, joyfully, I
know I can continue to change!
Her life represents what
people are hoping for.
* Name has been