Understanding Our Conscience―& photographer Lee Miller

A Woman’s Conscience― Friend or Enemy?

by Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of aspects of the life of Lee Miller

Lee Miller, by Man Ray

Every person is a critic of herself or himself―I have a conscience, and it’s the best thing in me: it is my friend. In fact, our conscience is the world in us,  I learned from Aesthetic Realism, insisting that we be fair to it and try to like it, or else we cannot like ourselves. Learning this, my life changed, and became happier than I ever thought possible.

Eli Siegel explains the central thing about conscience in a lecture titled, Life Is Involvement:

“Aesthetic Realism says what we are most troubled by is the way we make the beauty of the world less in order to give ourselves importance. That is what the conscience is most troubled by….Whenever we care more for ourselves than we do for finding the world authentically likable, our conscience is bothered.”

Women have gotten importance from looking beautiful, but they haven’t known that their conscience insists that they see beauty and meaning in the world and not make it less. This is what we most deeply want―it is the one way we can feel we have integrity and like ourselves honestly.

Tonight I will be speaking about my own life and what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, and about Lee Miller, who lived from 1907 to 1977; a Vogue model, professional photographer, American war correspondent and photojournalist in World War II. Lee Miller had this fight between the power and importance she got from looking beautiful, and the demand of her conscience that she see beautifully, through her own eyes and the eye of a camera. I respect the ethical struggle in her, and am grateful that through her life and the principles of Aesthetic Realism, other women can learn about what we most deeply want.

The Early Debate in Women

Mr. Siegel has written beautifully about the strength of a child’s desire to know and like the world, and Lee Miller was a very lively little girl, and she and her two brothers were encouraged by their father Theodore Miller’s keen interest in engineering, photography, and many other things. But Lee also knew her feminine charms, her blond hair, lovely face, and large eyes, had a powerful effect on her tall, authoritative father. Getting easy adoration, Aesthetic Realism explains, we may have contempt for a parent for being foolish about us, and use it to feel―why use my mind to know and see meaning in things, when I can get pleasure and power without doing anything?

There is in everyone a  desire for contempt―which Mr. Siegel described as “lessening of what is different from ourselves as a means of self-increase as one sees it”―and it is the big opposition to the demands of our conscience. I remember at night the special feeling I had sitting in my father’s lap, eating an orange with him which he had peeled. I thought he liked me, age 5 or 6, better than my mother, and I thought he was right. In an Aesthetic Realism class Eli Siegel asked me, “Did you want to have your father in some way subservient to you?” I did, and I thought other people should make me feel important in this way. Wanting adoration from men became more important to me than anything else; yet it was never satisfying–I felt empty and desperate for more. My conscience was critical of the praise I was going after, because it wasn’t really about who I was and what I most deeply wanted.

Eli Siegel explains this in one of the greatest, kindest essays ever, “The Ordinary Doom”:

“Our desire for praise, so common and often so hurtful, is really a substitute for our desire to be known as we are… If we are praised without being known, no matter how intense and multitudinous the praise may be, we are not wholly alive. To be taken for someone else is hardly a way to be alive in one’s own right…. Anyone who praises us without knowing us confuses our fundamental selves. To be known is to be seen in relation with all things: and when we can see our relation with all things, we like ourselves. The largest purpose of every person is to become what one is, entirely, by making accurate relations between what one is and all other realities.”

We often use the family’s praise to confuse our fundamental selves. My conscience, and the conscience of every woman, is asking we become ourselves, entirely, by seeing our relation with all things. Aesthetic Realism makes this possible because it shows what that relation is―that the structure of the world and ourselves is the oneness of opposites.

Our Conscience Wants Us to Be an Integrity

Every woman’s conscience is a friend, because it is asking we be an integrity: that we not separate our mind and our body, how we get pleasure and our self-respect. Photographer Lee Miller said many years later about the time when she was a Vogue model in the 1930s: “I was terribly, terribly pretty. I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside.” I respect her honesty about this. A drawing of her face appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1927, and she was regularly photographed by Edward Steichen and other top fashion photographers.

Lee Miller. Photo by Edward Steichen

Her outside got her great praise for its beauty, but she did not feel inside, her thought was beautiful. Just why she felt like a fiend she does not say, but her son and biographer Antony Penrose says she had an “uninhibited lifestyle” which included affairs with two men at the same time.  Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class, “If one does something and doesn’t think well of oneself for doing it, the price paid for the satisfaction is rather high.” Lee Miller did not respect herself for how she was as a model, and she left Vogue after two years.

Eli Siegel understood, as no one else ever has, the pain women are in because they can have a big effect for how they look, but don’t like how they use their minds. I am grateful to him more than I can say for how he encouraged me to be all I could be. By the time I met Aesthetic Realism in 1973 I was very worried I was not using my mind well―I could no longer read. I wanted to go back to school, but I also felt I was unable to be interested in anything too much, except the attention of the man I was living with, the one thing that seemed to really please me.

Eli Siegel asked in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974:

“What is the greatest desire in woman―to be complete, or seemingly happy? Should we depend on the self we are, or the self we can arrange? In dressing ourselves we arrange ourselves, but we weren’t born with things from Bonwits.”

“Ask,” he said to me, “if what is pleasing, or respect should come first.” His kindness and humor were beautiful. Eli Siegel showed me that in respecting the world and people there was a far greater pleasure―a pleasure I could respect myself for.

I believe Lee Miller was hoping to meet the comprehension that I met. I respect her courage very much―and, too, her life has me understand better my own desire for adoration and how much it hurts a woman. Aesthetic Realism can enable every woman and every person to be the complete person they want to be!

Conscience, and Our Purpose in Love

Lee Miller in 1929. Photo by Man Ray

In 1929 Lee Miller went to Paris, where she and the surrealist photographer Man Ray lived and worked together for three years, and she began to learn the art that would give her both great pleasure and self-respect. Man Ray “gave her confidence in her own eye,” biographer Antony Penrose writes. They worked together on the “solarization” technique that Man Ray is noted for discovering.

She and Man Ray also fought a great deal. One reason was competition between them, and eventually she left Paris to open Lee Miller Studios in New York, with her brother Erik as her assistant. Erik writes with respect of his sister’s “insistence on getting the highest quality” and about a time when they were doing a difficult color print and worked for 24 hours straight, he said, “Lee could be intolerably lazy when she wanted, but when the chips were down, she just would not quit.” 

Lee Miller, self-portrait
Lee Miller, self-portrait

This is a self-portrait she did at that time, 1932, for a fashion article on hairbands. This picture I feel represents what Eli Siegel writes in “The Ordinary Doom”: “When we can see our relation to all things, we like ourselves.” Lee Miller saw herself as a composition, as having angles and curves in relation to the angles and curves in the chair, and the dress she is wearing. There is also a great care for light and dark in her own face and features in relation to light and dark around her.

After working hard for a year and a half to establish herself as a commercial photographer, though, Lee Miller suddenly married a wealthy Egyptian businessman and left to live with him in Cairo. She left her brother jobless in the midst of the depression, with the work of having to pack up the studio. Her husband was very different from Man Ray―there were no “exacting standards” of photographic work, and he was not critical of her. She had chosen a life of comfort and wealth, and Penrose writes:

“Boredom was starting to creep into Lee’s life…Lee had underestimated her own need to be stimulated and to stretch her formidable mental powers in a creative and self-satisfying manner.”

A woman has to have the same purpose with a man, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, that she has with everything―she has to want to know and be fair to the world through him. A man has the structure of the world: he is hidden and shown, light and dark, the opposites that are in photography, too. Photography demanded respect, thought, exactitude from her and she had liked those demands, and through it she felt both pleasure and self-respect. Her conscience needed the assistance of the outside world as a critic of her desire to have contempt for the world. Every woman needs a man to demand of her what her own conscience does.

Instead of apologizing to her brother Erik, Lee wrote to him, “I don’t know whether you are still interested in photography―or got the same loathing for it I had”―she tried to justify her choice by having contempt for the very best thing in her, the thing she loved most.

Eli Siegel explains in his lecture Life Is Involvement  how we try to get away from our conscience―he says, “…one of the things we learn [is] how to have things not affect us. We don’t see we are cultivating emptiness and heartlessness.” In the same letter Lee Miller shows starkly the heartlessness she was cultivating as she writes about a car trip she took to an Egyptian village:

“Unfortunately I ran over a man or something―you see if you hit anyone here in the country, you are expected to beat it―in fact the Consulates always say HIT AND RUN―and report afterwards―so it spoiled the trip…but the pictures are swell.”

It was shortly after this that Lee spent two months in bed “just too damn tired to bother with anyone or anything” and began taking hormone injections because she didn’t know what was making her this way. Lee increasingly took trips away from her husband, and finally wrote to him:

“I can’t attack or appreciate anything directly because I’m so torn and shredded in my own self that my subconscious tic-tocs and irritates all my waking and sleeping moments… either from tender-heartedness or misplaced faith in my possible reform you are blinding yourself to my worthlessness as your wife―and even as a companion.”

She also wrote in this letter, “I want the utopian combination of security and freedom…” Her conscience was asking that she find the true relation of these opposites.

Precision and Freedom

She didn’t know that the thing she cared most for in her life, photography, answered this conflict in her life. Art shows we can have both security and freedom at once, and that, in fact, precision, including about someone we hope to love, makes for the true freedom we want. Eli Siegel says in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #46, “The Opposites Are There”:

“At this moment, photographers go after precision and suggestion in their work, and this includes commercial photographers. Precision here is order and suggestion is freedom.”

In Lee Miller’s best photographs there is precision and suggestion in a way that is important and moving. Here is a photograph she took in Siwa, Egypt, which she titled “Portrait of Space.”

Portrait of Space. Photo by Lee Miller
Portrait of Space. Photo by Lee Miller

We get a sense of the unlimited mystery of things that is more intense because this vast desert landscape is defined by a wild, graceful tear in the neatness of a rectangular screen. There is peacefulness seen through disorder.

In her life, Lee Miller did not want enough or know enough how to be exact. I think she did what Eli Siegel describes in Life Is Involvement, which as I read it I felt so described myself, and I felt so grateful for how Mr. Siegel understood people and gave a true answer to our worst self-inflicted suffering:

“We should all like to think that we manage our conscience: we know all about it and we are our own best accusers. We are our own very often intense accusers…but we are not our best accusers…persons would rather say “I’m no good” than “On this particular thing I didn’t do as well as I might.” The tendency to reproach ourselves utterly is very popular. The tendency to get down to exactitude is very unpopular… Everybody has had the feeling, “I’m no good, I shouldn’t have been born; I shouldn’t live tomorrow; I should have died yesterday; I should have enlisted in the Foreign Legion and been massacred”―that kind of thought is very popular.”

What Conscience Wants

Lee Miller, 1944. Photo by David Scherman.
Lee Miller, 1944. Photo by David Scherman.

I think there were two reasons that in 1942 Lee Miller became a war correspondent. One was because of the feeling Mr. Siegel described with such kind, deep humor: “I should have enlisted in the Foreign Legion and been massacred.” The other was a courageous desire to record reality as it was, and not leave things out. As a correspondent it was illegal for her to be in combat zones, but that is where she went. After D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, she went to France into the midst of battle in the once picturesque town of St. Malo. Vogue ran her pictures and description.

Then she went to where troops from many countries―Russians, Spaniards, Free French, the Foreign Legion, Argentinians, Hungarians, Americans―were pushing the nearly defeated Germans back over the Rhine. It was 1945, and I think it is here she took one of her best pictures, of marching troops arriving to join the Allies.

It has the precision and suggestion Mr. Siegel describes. There is mystery and something darkly ominous against the white snow, as we do not see any one face of the men and they are covered by their robes and helmets, and there is a sense of grandeur in the tall vertical trees disappearing in the distance, which are like the men and different from them. There is the suggestion of an exact triangle made by the line of men. And there is disorder, and tragedy, in the foreground as we see a soldier with his head bowed, standing before a grave he has dug.

Lee Miller went to the concentration camp at Dachau on the day it was liberated by the Rainbow Company. She was, Penrose writes, at first numb and speechless with disbelief at the horror of death and dying she saw; then in great anger she took pictures and cabled them to Vogue’s editor with the message: “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.”

It is hard to know all that Lee Miller felt at Dachau; I do not think I know. I respect her for wanting other people’s consciences to be moved by it. Over 20 years later when I was travelling in Europe, I went to a very different looking Dachau, a tremendously important reminder of what was. That was 1968 and I was cold and uninterested in as large an evil being done by my own country—the tortuous, brutal killing of thousands of innocent persons in Vietnam. If I and millions like me had consciences that were fully alive and known, Vietnam would not have been—had Aesthetic Realism been known and studied, I know the Vietnam War would not have been.

Whenever we see evil in the world there is a choice that a person has, which Aesthetic Realism makes clear, about how to use it. Our conscience is asking that we use it to have greater feeling for the world, by being passionately against what is evil in ourselves and others. We can also use it to justify our desire to have contempt for everything. For Lee Miller, the battle in herself continued after the war was over; she was never able to be at ease with her conscience. She didn’t know how to clearly distinguish between these two choices. She didn’t know what Eli Siegel describes in “The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict,” a chapter of Self and World:

“In keeping with notions that have been present all through history, the human being does have two sides, just as he has a profile and a full face. These two sides, it is true, make up a one; yet in the same way as you get a different impression from the side view of face from that got from a full view, so, though these two sides of self make up a one, they can have different effects.”

It seems Lee Miller wanted to mock the best thing in her, and not have such large feeling. She suffered very much after the war, Penrose describes, from “self-laceration…she would weep alone in bed all day.”  Studying her life has had me realize in a new way how fortunate I am to be able to know what my own conscience is asking of me.

Aesthetic Realism understands and describes accurately the importance to every person’s life of their conscience—why it is their friend. Eli Siegel showed every day of his life the power and beauty of ethics in how he was just to the world. He made people believe in themselves; he made me able to. He also described what is really our enemy within—our desire to have contempt for the world—so we can defeat it. He was the world’s greatest friend.