by Nancy Huntting
With a consideration of aspects of the life and work of Aphra Behn
Aesthetic Realism is new and tremendously kind in distinguishing clearly between two very different kinds of triumph people have in love—one which is false, and makes us weaker and ashamed; the other, a true and lasting triumph, arising from the desire to like the world itself.
Growing up in Ohio, I had a feeling of respectful wonder as my 4th grade class studied the brightest star in the constellation Orion, with the amazing name Betelgeuse, so many, inconceivable light years away. But I also wanted the feeling I got at home: that I was stellar, just because I was a Huntting, of superior New England stock, as we saw it.
Without knowing it, I increasingly went after this spurious triumph of feeling I was better than others. As a result, at 13, despite praise from parents and teachers, when I began to think my best friend was more beautiful and smarter than I, I wrote to her that I was a failure—something I felt quite keenly.
Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel asked me questions that made the cause of this feeling of failure clear to me: “Have you wanted to be superior to every woman you met?” Yes, I had. That basis for “self-esteem” was fake, and I couldn’t entirely fool myself. I came to see that I was punishing myself with a feeling of inferiority, and was ill-at-ease with anyone outside my family and close friends.
The Mistake about Love
It was also at this age that Tom Weston began to act a little nervous around me—to smile, boast, tease me. I felt such a thrill that nothing seemed to compare with it. He was lively and interested in art, but I wanted him to like me more than anything else. My care for everything else dimmed—except Tom’s calls, what he was doing, if he was going to ask me to go steady. I thought the fact that his father, a contractor, built their split-level house, and even that his sister was pretty, favorably reflected on Tom and therefore on me.
Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World:
To see another person, as having meaning, having beauty, and having power because one can use that person as an argument in behalf of one’s self-love—that is really to despise a person; to hate him; to de-individualize him.
This is what I did, with Tom and later with other men, and it made for hell: for anger, jealousy, disappointment, shame.
When I came to New York after college, I met a man who was studying to be an architect, and with his help opened a small antique store. But I had a stuck, heavy feeling as I sat in that store, and didn’t want to move. I despised my indolence, yet didn’t see there was an intense ambition I did have: that this enterprising young man should make me feel terrifically important and take care of me. “Were you in a relation with him of empress and lackey?” Mr. Siegel later asked. Yes! But then I only knew I felt weak and ashamed. I would have gone after this hurtful triumph again and again if I hadn’t met Aesthetic Realism, and learned what love really is.
Eli Siegel Asks about Purpose
In a class, Mr. Siegel asked me questions I am everlastingly grateful for; they explained what was running me:
Eli Siegel: Everyone wants to conquer someone, and Aesthetic Realism doesn’t go along with that. Do you want to conquer, or to understand?
Nancy Huntting: Both.
ES: Which is predominant? Has it torn you apart?
NH: I think it has,
ES: Is there any greater comfort in the world than owning a person whom you desire? Do you believe you conquer the world by having a man need you?
I saw that the victory I felt when a man showed he needed me seemed to put the whole demanding world in its place. But, I was learning, the demands I had tried to get away from were coming from me, and I should be proud of them.
“Which would you rather do,” Mr. Siegel asked, “scorn, or find more meaning in things?”
I love him for this question, crucial to my whole life, and for enabling me to find so much more meaning in things—my parents, other women, and men; meaning in the world, past and present. I, once so self-centered and cold, am so grateful it matters to me now that justice come to others! Through studying Aesthetic Realism, which I am proud to be now in magnificent classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, I have been freed to like things and people and to want to know a man—which is the real triumph in love!
Will It Be Intrigue, or “Plaindealing”?
Aesthetic Realism has at last made clear why women and men have fooled themselves so much. Mr. Siegel explains in a great lecture he gave in 1949, Aesthetic Realism and Love:
Contemptuous love is the love that says, “in capturing somebody and making that person an annex of myself and having him please me and praise me, I will have conquered the world, pulled a fast one on the universe, and in this way I can like myself.” It is a false liking of oneself.
Love based on respect is the feeling that affecting a particular person and being affected by that person as deeply as possible and in all the ways possible, would be a means of liking the world in general.
I speak now about a woman whose life and work are valuable in showing the fight between these two possibilities. I am writing about just a few aspects of the full, important life of Aphra Behn, 1640-1689, who was described by Mr. Siegel in a lecture as “a very noteworthy 17th century English writer.” She is said to be the first woman to make her living writing: her complete works—19 full-length plays, poems, stories, and novels—fill seven volumes. Her “comedies of intrigue” were popular Restoration plays. Along with the fact that at 26, she was a spy in the service of King Charles II—the following is said about Aphra Behn in Westminster Abbey, where she is buried: “She was Mistress of all the pleasing Arts of conversation, but us’d ’em not to any but those who love Plaindealing.”
I feel this is true—Aphra Behn had an impelling desire to be honest. It arose from an interest in the world that had scope and particularity. For instance, I was amazed to learn that she used sign language in her plays. And in 1688 she published a revolutionary, courageous work titled Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, about which Mr. Siegel said, it was “the first novel which tried to deal with the African as a human being, and sometimes [she] is said to have written the first anti-slavery novel.”
In her comedies, Aphra Behn could put together intrigue and “plaindealing” in a way both deep and delightful, that made for art. Her characters often mingle the noble and conniving, innocence and mischief. For instance, her most popular comedy, The Rover of 1677, satirizes the coyness, silliness, and insincerity of both sexes in love. Set in Naples in Carnival time, two sisters, Hellena and Florinda, are talking:
Hellena. …Tell me, too, who ’tis you sigh for?
Florinda. When you are a Lover, I’ll think you fit for a Secret of that nature.
Hellena. ‘Tis true, I was never a Lover yet—but I begin to have a shreud Guess, what ’tis to be so, and fancy it very pretty to sigh, and sing, and blush and wish, and dream and wish, and long and wish to see the Man; and when I do, look pale and tremble; just as you did when my Brother brought home the fine English Colonel to see you — what do you call him? Don Belvile.
Florinda. Fie, Hellena.
Hellena. That blush betrays you…
A little later Hellena has this thoughtful, rather honest observation:
I love Mischief strangely, as most of our Sex do, who are come to love nothing else.
“It is a beautiful fact,” Ellen Reiss writes in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, # 1318:
that we are critics of ourselves, and we want to think well of that self we walk around with, use to look at things with, are alone with in the privacy or our minds….There is no fiercer, more unquenchable question in people than How can I like myself—and why don’t I?
This is true of Aphra Behn. She could feel, on the one hand, she had true reason to make this proud assertion to a man: “[H]ave thoughts as much in favour of me as you can, for when you know me better, you will believe I merit all.” And she also wrote: “you bid me not dissemble; and you need not have cautioned me, who so naturally hate those little arts of my sex.”
Yet she could dislike herself very much, and not know why, and fool herself about why. “She had suffering from men,” Mr. Siegel pointed out, and we can see she had a fight between whether to understand a man or conquer him, which made for self-loathing.
The title role of The Rover is supposed to be patterned on a man she cared for, a lawyer, John Hoyle. I think Aphra Behn wanted to understand him in writing it, and the pain they gave each other. In the play when the cavalier Willmore, the Rover, finally decides to leave off seducing women to marry Hellena, it is because she is a straightforward critic of him, and he says to her: “Thou hast one virtue I adore—good nature. I hate a coy demure mistress.”
Good nature, akin to good will in the way she writes of it, is clearly a quality Aphra Behn wanted to have with men and with John Hoyle. She didn’t have an easy time. In this letter to a man she calls Lycidas, likely Hoyle, she’s intensely critical of his desire to remain cool while wanting her to show warmth, and we feel she yearns to respect him:
Greedy Lycidas! … You would not be in love, for all the world, yet wish I were so, Uncharitable! … I have heard, when two souls kindly meet, ’tis a vast pleasure, as vast as the curse must be, when kindness is not equal….
This is moving. But Aphra Behn didn’t have the opportunity—as women and men have now in Aesthetic Realism consultations—to hear criticism of that in herself against what is needed for two souls to “kindly meet.” I believe she also wanted John Hoyle to be warmer, not because it would be good for his life, but so she could have him. This is likely also from a letter to Hoyle:
I cannot help wishing you no mirth, nor any content in your dancing design; and this unwonted malice in me I do not like ….May your women be all ugly, ill-natured, ill-dressed, ill-fashioned, and unconversable; and for your greater disappointment may every moment of your time there be taken up with thoughts of me (a sufficient curse)….
She sees she has malice and doesn’t like herself for it, but feels she has to get revenge. They both punished each other. “Revenge,” Mr. Siegel writes:
is seen as true self-expression …. ill will seems more convenient, more protective, wiser … But the absence of good will is now making apartments, suburban homes, two-story houses everywhere in America places of strategy, sorrow, and illness.
In a class in 1977, Mr. Siegel said of Aphra Behn:
[She was] the first woman [writer] with a certain relation of masculine and feminine. . . . There can be a going towards men, and a way one feels they are also not worthy of one. This is in her life, and solved in Oroonoko, the young, handsome Black prince.
Our Inward Criterion: The Oneness of Opposites
Oroonoko, in her novel, puts together power and grace, is fierce and kind, and I think he stands for the triumph Aesthetic Realism shows every person wants—the oneness of opposites: “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Oroonoko, grandson of an African chief and educated by a European tutor, is captured and taken in a slave ship to the colony of Surinam, on the northern coast of South America. The colonists see his “greatness of courage and mind” she writes, and give him the name Caesar.
His face is “of perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes … very piercing”; he has “no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty.”
On the ship, Oroonoko would have starved himself to death, rather than submit to slavery, and others follow him in this — so the captain, in fear for his cargo, convinces Oroonoko he will be freed. In the colony he is again assured freedom—but is told he must wait till the Lord-Governor comes from England.
Oronooko marries and his wife is going to have a child; they fear the child is wanted for a slave too, so he goes to rouse the other slaves—Aphra Behn writes that he speaks to them:
…of the miseries and ignominies of slavery; counting up all their toils and sufferings, under such loads, burdens, and drudgeries as were fitter for beast than men; senseless brutes, than human souls. He told ’em, it was not for days, months, or years, but for eternity; there was no end to be of their misfortunes…. “And why,” said he, “… should we be… bought and sold … to be the sport of … such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the lash from such hands?” They all replied with one accord, “No, no, no…”
The novel ends with Oroonoko being tortured and burned for leading the rebellion — her description is unflinching, unbearable, yet brave in showing how he never debased himself, never allowed his tormentors to have contempt for him. She wanted to get within the soul of this man and these men and oppose the brutal, entrenched contempt of White for Black—and this represents the true triumph of art, for which she could deeply respect herself.
The Purpose that Will Have Men and Women Proud
I’m sure Aphra Behn wants her life to be used now to see how much women and men want to have good will as their conscious purpose in love. “Good will is aesthetics,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “a true mingling of kindness and exactness or severity…. [it] works against … disproportionate love of self.”
Janet Peale, a young woman with striking blue eyes and strawberry blond hair, told her Aesthetic Realism consultants there were two things she didn’t like in herself — her desire to mock people, and how she was with men. She felt that what she humorously referred to as “The Peale Plan, Maxim #1: ‘Flattery will get you everywhere” with a man, had hurt her.
We asked, “Do you want to be proud of the way you’re for people and against them?” “Oh, yes,” she said. “So do you want to have your critical mind working with a good purpose as you’re in a close relation with a man?” “Yes, I do. I feel I almost get panicky when I see a handsome man,” she said.
“Women have felt clever keeping men guessing,” we pointed out. “Can your mind work clearly as to a man, or do you think that’s boring? Why do you think you get fragmented as you think about a man?”
Janet Peale: I don’t know.
Consultants: Are you hoping to have contempt or respect? Contempt is what the pain in love comes from.
“I’m not sure,” Miss Peale said.
Consultants: Have men felt you were strategic? Do you want to make a big man fall?
JP: That’s true. I did that very much with my father. I hated the way he was so sure of himself and logical, and I would consciously think of things to do to get him angry.
In an important assignment she did, “Five things about what it would mean to use a man to like the world,” Miss Peale wrote about a man she was coming to know in a way that is both assertively proud and yielding at once. For example:
Ben Fletcher finds meaning in instances of reality that I would ordinarily dismiss. Recently as we walked down the street, he stopped to photograph [what I saw as just] a pile of rubbish …. As he spoke [I saw] these inanimate objects that had been discarded … coming alive….the world had more meaning for me.
She told us she respected Mr. Fletcher for his energy and seriousness, but was also scared as she was more affected by him.
We asked: “Do you think you’re in a conflict of hope and fear about being known by a man?”
JP: I think I am, but I don’t really understand why.
Consultants: Do you think your first thought about a man is “Does he find me attractive?”
JP: Yes, definitely!
Consultants: Do you think there’s another value you want to go after that you don’t honor enough?
JP: I think there is, yes.
Consultants: If you could see how much you want to have good will for a man, and use him to know and like the world, you would feel like an integrated person. You would like yourself.
I’m proud to end my paper with what Miss Peale wrote in a letter some months later, which stands for what women everywhere can feel through studying Aesthetic Realism:
I never thought there could be more pleasure or power than in conquering a man….Now, I am learning how to be kind and strengthen a man and I feel a pleasure, excitement, self-respect and dignity I never thought possible…. Aesthetic Realism has made me feel more alive and enabled me increasingly to have a mind I can respect.