Realism Public Seminar
Can a Woman Make
Sense of the Way She’s For & Against a Man, the World, Herself?
Including a consideration of the courageous life
& work of Nobel Prize-winner, Wangari Maathai.
by Nancy Huntting
Presented at the August 5,
Public Seminar, Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City.
I wanted to think I was just for
a man who I cared for, that he was wonderful, and in fact much of the
time I acted that way, as if I just admired everything about him. But,
if he did something that I took as against me—didn’t call me, didn’t
listen, forgot me, then it was: “how dare he disappoint me,
that selfish, mean .…!” The truth was, I went from being for
a man to being against him very fast, and my
relationships did not fare well. I assumed it was the men’s fault.
For instance, in my mid 20s, I’d
broken up with Jay Matthews, a theatrical set designer whom I’d hoped
to marry. I’d been intensely against him—feeling he was not
interested in or understanding of what I called my struggle to find
myself. But I also wanted him back, and in an Aesthetic Realism class,
I’m grateful Eli Siegel
enabled me to make sense of how I was for and against him. Mr. Siegel
Siegel: Where are you proud of how you see Mr. Matthews? [In
Shakespeare’s play,] Juliet was very proud of being interested in
Huntting: I like his energy, his desire to know things.
way he sees an art adds to the way you see the world?
his interest in set design. I’ve learned a lot.
the desire to construct, and you’re more verbal? There are three things
in being affected by a person: 1) What he knows; 2) What his heart is
like, and 3) His manner. Do you feel you have a true picture of him?
ES: Do you see him too eulogistically, and also as a beast? Does your
anger give him no qualities at all?
think that’s true. 1
I remembered that I threw a book
Jay—seeing him as an enemy I wanted to hurt. Mr. Siegel gave me some of
most valuable criticism I ever received when he said to me: “I see you
as a person who wants to love something securely, and at the same time
not give up your disdain.” 2
disdainful. While most of the time I acted adoring with Jay Matthews, I
simply assumed I was superior—sensitive, faithful, smart—and he, like
other men—conceited, selfish, unseeing. I was attracted to men that
were energetic, interested in art. However, I equated love with a man
making me central, more important than other things. But if someone did
this I thought less of him, had contempt for him—and became
Mr. Siegel enabled me that day to
begin to see Jay Matthews with good will. He showed me I needed to be for
his existence in the whole world, not as some prize or disappointment
for me. Like every person, he had possibilities of good and bad, and
both were real, to be understood. Mr. Siegel
Siegel: Do you feel Jay Matthews is kind enough?
important. I think he wants very much to be kind. The purpose of
education is to be kind without mush. He doesn’t believe in it yet.
Does he have enough good will for you?
good for him? 3
I had never thought of that, and
was learning the purpose that puts for and against together truly.
Aesthetic Realism shows good will is not the gushy, soft
thing it’s been seen as at all—it takes intelligence. It’s wanting to
know what’s best in someone, and encouraging it with energy and
In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic
Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss explains
why I and women and men everywhere are so painfully mixed up in love: "
People don’t know that they way they are for and against other human
beings arises from how they are for and against the world itself."
4 She continues:
shows that there is an
actual hope in a person to be against the world, despise it,
it as…unworthy of oneself. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to put
for and against truly together: to oppose what is unjust in a person
out of respect for that person; to be terrifically against what is ugly
in the world out of love for that world. 5
For & Against in a Woman of
In 2004, Wangari Maathai of Kenya
became the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the
Nobel Peace Prize. She got it for 3 decades of hard work in the Green
Belt Movement she founded, which has planted 30 million trees in Kenya,
helping prevent soil erosion and desertification and providing
education and jobs for people who desperately need them. The Green
Belt Movement encouraged in people who’d felt powerless an active
interest in justice, in fighting for what they and the
environment deserve and against “land grabbing” and
exploiting of natural resources.
There was a deep care for
the land and people of Africa in Wangari Maathai which enabled her to
persist against formidable opponents—corrupt government
officials and corporations, being lied-about and jailed. Unbowed
is the title of her 2006 memoir. Meanwhile, she had the question of how
to see the very people she was encouraging—how to make sense of ways
she was for them and against them.
Wangari Maathai was born in 1940
the central highlands of Kenya, the third of six children, and grew up
in a traditional dwelling of earthen walls and thatched roof in her
family’s compound, on land that belonged to a British wheat farmer for
whom her father worked as a multi-lingual driver and skilled mechanic.
Kenya, once called British East Africa, didn’t achieve independence
until she was 23 years old in 1963; meanwhile, foreign investors
continue to control and profit from its resources. In her 2009 book TheChallenge
for Africa, a chapter is titled “Land Ownership: Whose Land Is It,
Anyway?” in which she writes:
[C]olonial governments forcibly
displaced large numbers of native Africans to make way for European
settlers….They also brought with them a concept of landownership that
was alien to much of the African continent….Traditionally, land was
owned not by an individual but by the family or the community. 6
When Wangari was growing up near
Kenya in the 1940s the fertile land provided them shelter, food, clean
water, and fuel; in the winter their earthen dwellings were actually
warmer than the stone buildings of the Catholic school where she lived
in her teens. Yet, like many other native Kenyans forced to be
“squatters”—if, for instance, they grew crops beyond their needs, they
had to sell them to the British landowner at a price enabling him to
resell at a profit.
In many lectures Mr. Siegel gave
showed that how the land is owned is central to history. Because a few
people have claimed ownership of vast tracts, millions of others have
been robbed. In 1923, in the Modern Quarterly, at the age of
21, Mr. Siegel wrote:
Now if nobody made the land, it
evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to
own it and should own it. And the land is what everything comes
from—the one means of industry. 7
For and Against
the Education of a Child
Children have a strong desire to
learn, and to find the world pleasing, Aesthetic Realism shows—and
meanwhile these desires have met tough opposition, often economic. The
British didn’t want the native people, their cheap labor force, to be
educated, so when Wangari was a child there were still very few
schools, with girls rarely attending. Her mother had not had this
chance. She tells how, when she was 8, a decision was made that was
profoundly for her life:
My brother Nderitu (who was age
posed a question to my mother: ‘How come Wangari doesn’t go to school
like the rest of us?’….My mother could easily have said, ‘We don’t have
enough money, I need her at home. What is the point of a girl going to
school?’ Yet, although she had almost no formal education, she agreed
with my brother. How grateful I am that she made the decision she
did…it changed my life! 8
She walked three miles to the
Primary School, went on to a Catholic missionary high school, and
received a scholarship through “The Kennedy Airlift,” to attend Mount
St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. She then got a masters in
biological science at the University of Pittsburgh and returned to
research, teaching, and her doctorate at the University of Nairobi.
People have gotten degrees, yet
used education against the world—for superiority. To a large
degree Wangari’s academic study made for greater feeling in her for
people and what they endured. She observed the livestock she was
studying were too thin, her country not as fertile and green, water
more scarce, women’s lives harder—and she wanted to know why.
She saw that the many trees cleared for the planting of crops exported
for profit, like coffee and tea, had caused soil erosion. In her
homeland in Nyeri, a fig tree she was in awe of as a child, which her
people, the Kikuyu, saw as sacred, was gone, and she writes:
When the fig tree was cut down,
stream where I had played with the tadpoles dried up….I mourned the
loss of that tree. I profoundly appreciated the wisdom of my people….
Whatever the original inspiration for not cutting these trees, people
in that region had been spared landslides, as the strong roots of the
fig trees held the soil together in the steep mountains. They also had
abundant, clean water. But by the early 1970s, landslides were
becoming common and sources of clean water for drinking were becoming
She was angry, and in 1977 she
the Green Belt Movement in order to encourage women to see they could
do something to improve their own lives: by planting trees, and also by
fighting to save forests and stop public lands being usurped for
private profit. Shamefully, they had to fight their own government,
which was working not for their benefit, but for the persons making
large profits from the land which rightfully belonged to these native
men and women.
For and Against
Every woman needs to know how to
together being for and against a man, and how to criticize our own desire
to be against that is contempt. We can see that Wangari Maathai has
this danger, as she tells about the discrimination against women in her
University department, where she rightly fought for equality of pay.
However, in the following sentences she shows a desire to be superior
I found myself challenging the
that a woman could not be as good as or better than a man.…Indeed, I
found myself wanting to be more than the equal of some of the men I
knew. I had higher aspirations and did not want to be compared with men
of lesser ability and capacity. 10
In 1969 she married Mwangi
she was 29 and he was 34, and together they were to have three
children. She writes that “he was a good man, very handsome, and quite
religious,” adding “he was always a very good businessman.” At this
time she was becoming one of the Kenyan elite. Her husband had also
gone to college in the U.S. and returned to work for Colgate Palmolive
in Kenya; then he ran for Parliament—she worked with him, and he won
his second campaign. This made for a crisis in her life—she writes:
Mwangi promised that he would
create more employment for people if they voted for him. This worried
me a lot….’Where will he get these jobs from?” I thought to myself,
‘There are no jobs these days….After he had taken his oath of office, I
raised the issue of his promises. ‘What are you going to do with all
the people you promised the jobs to?’ I asked. ‘That was the campaign,’
he replied. ‘Now we are in Parliament.’”
‘How can we face these people
another campaign?… Don’t you think they’ll ask, ‘Where are those jobs
you promised?’ Mwangi old me not to worry. But I did. I refused to
accept that we should break our promises so easily. 11
She attempted to start a business
which would employ many people called Envirocare—gardening and
landscaping for persons in the wealthier areas—which didn’t succeed. In
the course of trying, though, she came to know a forester from whom she
purchased her first tree nursery.
Two years later in 1977 she came
to find that Mwangi Mathai had left her and wanted a divorce. What he
might have honestly objected to in her, she doesn’t ask about—as she
writes about this, she implies that, encouraged by traditional ways, he
didn’t like having a strong, successful wife. And she writes angrily,
“It had never occurred to me…to deny any of my God-given talents” 12 to prove he was in command.
I thought of questions that
might be asked in Aesthetic Realism consultations:
When you were five years old, and perhaps ran faster than
a boy your age—do you think you might have felt pleasure, imagining you
were superior to him?
(smiling): Yes, I certainly could have.
should be as good as you can be—but that is different from getting
pleasure thinking you’re better than someone else—which is
the kind of pleasure Aesthetic Realism explains is contempt.
This contempt is the same thing you’re fighting against in officials
who look down on people living in the villages, and exploit them for
their own profit.
learning something new. Thank you.
prejudice comes because someone gets pleasure thinking they’re superior
to someone else. Do you think you ever felt this about your husband?
my. I’ll have to think about that. Yes, I think so.
seems you rightly objected to your husband not keeping his campaign
promise, but do you think he himself felt ashamed?
acted sure of himself. But I think he must have.
that mean there was something better in him than what he was going by?
see the logic.
Aesthetic Realism says everyone has an ethical unconscious—it’s the
world in us insisting we be fair to it or we can’t like ourselves.
Could you have fought for that: for what was best in him? Could you
have said, with that directness you have: Mwangi Mathai, you’re being
untrue to yourself, the ethics in you. I love you, and I’m going to
fight for that. And you know what a good fighter I am.
Makes Sense of For & Against
I want Wangari Maathai, who is so
admirable, to know the education we’re presenting tonight, and which
women are studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations. For example,
Lacy Warren, a science professor from Minnesota, was, like Wangari, a
world-traveler with academic degrees, and she’d also been married and
divorced. She told us she moved to New York hoping to start a new life.
When I arrived here I was a
and disappointed woman, thinking I would stay ‘independent’ for the
rest of my life and not care for anything or anybody too deeply. 13
Now she had begun seeing Patrick
Fisher, a lawyer, but she was ill-at-ease. Like Wangari Maathai, for
and against in her were intense: an anger with her father, her
ex-husband, and men as such, yet she wanted to love someone. We asked:
“What was your husband’s biggest criticism of you?
Warren: He said I wasn't honest. I wanted my own way, and didn't want
to see what he felt.
do you think you were most dishonest about?
Warren: Showing my feelings. Why have I wanted so much to arrange my
response to things?
Because you haven't trusted reality too much. Are people good enough to
show your feelings to?
Warren: I haven't trusted people. 14
Meanwhile, as she spoke about
Fisher, she presented herself as utterly for him. Hints came
through—little smiles at how he was awkward, and about things he didn’t
know—that she felt she was intellectually superior, and didn't value
his care for the law. We asked: Do you want him to be intimidated by
your keen mind?
Warren: Maybe I do.
you liked to punish men?
Warren: I think I have.
Cons: Do you still have cynicism
reality itself? Because cynics don’t fare too well in love—if the world
isn’t seen as worth liking, you’re not going to want to like it through
a man, you’re going to want to punish it.
And we asked: “Do you think that
have criticism of themselves? Is this real to you?”
Warren: It could be more real.
are your thoughts about your former husband?
Warren: My thoughts are better. I don’t feel they are just about
wanting to get revenge on him—but, I don’t feel I’m kind in my thought
you feel a man deserves to suffer? That he doesn’t deserve good to come
to him? That’s a terrible thing to play around with—it’s what makes
bombs fall. The matter of good will Mr. Siegel saw as the biggest
emergency in the world. 15
We told her that she should try to
the inner life of men; one book we suggested was Tom Jones by
Henry Fielding. There was an important change in her when she wrote:
You have encouraged me to be
my former husband, and to look honestly at my regrets….I feel my life
is more hopeful….I see people more deeply, [and] I don’t feel alone
anymore—this is very large. Aesthetic Realism enables me to be a better
and kinder person, something I thought would never be possible. 16
of For and Against
In 1989, when the Green Belt
was in its 12th year, Wangari learned the government planned to build
a huge skyscraper complex with shopping mall, parking for 2000 cars,
and statue of the president in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, equivalent to our
Central Park. She wrote passionate, critical letters, and kept on
writing them though she never received replies: to President Moi, to
the Kenya Times for whom the complex was to be named, the
British, and the UN. She gave copies to journalists who reported on her
campaign, and led demonstrations in the Park. She writes about its
I was distressed at the
with which the government was violating people’s rights, quashing
dissent—often brutally….Ordinary people had become so fearful that they
had been rendered nearly powerless. Now, they were beginning to
reclaim their power…. 17
It began losing financial
and finally in 1992 the complex was dead! Winning this fight, she
writes, gave many people “more confidence, courage, and speed.” 18
After this, however, the
sought revenge—the Green Belt Movement was evicted from their offices
and lost crucial funding, and so she housed the organization and its 80
employees in her home, along with her teenage son. She heard she was
one of many in pro-democracy groups targeted for assassination; then
police came to her home. Charged with sedition and treason, she was
taken to a cell where she had to sleep on the floor: “wet, freezing
cold, filled with water and filth….I was 52 years old, arthritic in
both knees, and suffering from back pain…my joints ached so much that
I thought I would die.” 19 By the time of her court hearing her legs
had completely seized up; she had to be carried, and she was crying
from pain and weak from hunger.
As she was taken from court to the
hospital, a banner carried by friends and supporters read WANGARI,
BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA, YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN.
20 Her son Muta fought for her release, and American
friends at the U.N. called on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to
act: eight U.S. senators, including the late Paul Wellstone, brought
pressure to bear through telegrams. Several months later the charges
I want Wangari Maathai and people
everywhere to know what Aesthetic Realism has explained: there is a
fight for and against the world in everyone which
we have to make sense of, and through Aesthetic Realism, we can!
1. Ethical Study
Conference taught by Eli Siegel, November 26, 1974.
2. General Lesson taught by Eli Siegel, October 5, 1974.
3. Ethical Study Conference, November 26, 1974.
4. The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1128
6. The Challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai, [Pantheon
Books, NY, 2009], p. 227.
ss, NY, 1997 ] p. 34.
7. The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism,
by Eli Siegel [Definition Press, NY, 1997 ] p. 34.
8. Unbowed by Wangari Muta Maathai, [Anchor Books-Random
House, NY, 2007], p.39-40.
9. Ibid. p. 122.
10. Ibid. p. 117.
11. Ibid. p. 126, 127.
12. Ibid. p. 140.
13. Aesthetic Realism consultation document, [Aesthetic Realism
14. Transcription of Aesthetic Realism consultation, [Aesthetic Realism
16. Aesthetic Realism consultation document.
17. Unbowed, p. 195.
18. Ibid., p. 205.
19. Ibid., p. 214.
20. Ibid., p. 215.