Knowing Oneself—& Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon

Can a Woman Really Know Herself?—& Does She Want To?

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of Ruth in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon.

Wrenn Schmidt and Lucas Hall in the Irish Rep production of Eugene O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon."
Wrenn Schmidt and Lucas Hall in the Irish Rep production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Beyond the Horizon.”

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation when I was 27 years old, I told my consultants I felt “stuck.” I was worried that I would lose the man I loved and depended upon for my happiness. They asked:

Consultants. As Mr. Cameron feels you like him very much, do you think he also feels that you don’t really know him? Could that make a man question in some way?
(Nancy Huntting nods)
Consultants. Do you think you can know Mr. Cameron just by himself? Women make the big mistake of thinking they can know one person out of the universe and not have to know anyone else deeply. Do you think we could know you unless we wanted to know people as such?

I hadn’t imagined that knowing other people had anything to do with knowing Mr. Cameron, much less with knowing myself. I didn’t like most people and felt I was right not to. However, I also didn’t like myself, and I didn’t know why.

This was about to change. That day I learned the most crucial thing about myself, and I never felt stuck again: it freed me. I learned I had two selves that were opposed to each other: one got pleasure having contempt for things—feeling superior, managing people, dismissing people; the other, my whole self, got pleasure through knowing and being fair to the world outside of me. I came to see that our happiness depends on knowing ourselves, our motives in everything we do, well enough to choose what truly represents us!

“Aesthetic Realism says,” wrote Mr. Siegel in his essay “Knowing Oneself”: “that the more we can truly like in this world, the more that is not ourselves we can see as increasing what we are, the more we know ourselves and are taking care of ourselves.”

To show the truth of this I’ll speak about what I learned, about a character in a play by Eugene O’Neill, and about a woman studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations which I’m honored to teach.

Mr. Siegel continues: “Everything in the world can be seen as telling us something about ourselves. Therefore if we have contempt for anything unjustly, we interfere with a chance of knowing ourselves.”

The World & Ourselves: Competitors or Friends?

Growing up in a small village called Glendale, 14 miles north of the Ohio River, I felt I knew myself, simply because I was myself: that is, highly intelligent, pretty, of the distinguished Connecticut Hunttings. But—”ay, there’s the rub”—despite my parents acting as if I was near perfect, the quantity of E’s (for excellent) I got in grade school and A’s in high school—why was I so socially uncomfortable, so unsure of myself, that I wanted to disappear?

I wouldn’t admit these feelings. I was, I told myself, shy and sensitive. Strangers might hurt me with a look, a sneer, or by knowing things I didn’t. You don’t reveal yourself to them. Friends were persons who had already shown they liked and approved of me. I couldn’t imagine that I was anything but one of the best persons in this world filled with all sorts of unsavory humanity. Mr. Siegel explained in his essay on “Knowing Oneself”:

“There is a fear of knowing oneself that is present in nearly every person….The interference with knowing oneself is the desire a person has to praise oneself or think well of oneself….There is the feeling in people that if they know themselves, they’ll come upon certain matters which will not delight them.”

I had this fear; I doubted I was as wonderful as I tried to convince myself I was. I was 13 when my best friend, Marcy Cochran, moved away, and I remember writing a letter to her that was an outpouring of the feeling I was a failure. Why did I do that? Marcy had beautiful natural blond hair, did arguably better in school than I did, and now had achieved something I hadn’t, something we’d dreamed of together: she’d gotten a horse! I was crushed by her accomplishments and good fortune; I later learned she was accepted at the Sorbonne, another blow.

I was competitive—something I would have denied at the time. Mr. Siegel later asked me: “Have you wanted to be superior to every woman you’ve met?”

Though my ego was shocked at the realization, yes, I did! And I’m tremendously grateful he asked this question. It had me know myself better. I was able to see the ugliness and harm and folly of being this way, and be happier than I ever could have been.

As I studied Aesthetic Realism, I began to respect other people as representatives of the world with interesting questions like my own. It was then that my fear began to change; I felt a new relation to others and no longer lonely. I had a new freedom in my own skin!

“When people know themselves,” Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “they truly can approve of themselves because they know what they are. No self can truly know itself and be ashamed.”

How Can You Know When You’re in Love?

Freddy Barton and I went steady on and off from 9th until 12th grade, which along with its terrific moments, was anguish. I got his school ring, wrapped it with fluffy black Angora yarn to make it fit, and a few months later he wanted it back.

I cried like it was the end of the world each time we broke up. All I thought about was being with him: everything else in the world seemed dull.

Another fact about myself I needed to know, and would learn about through knowing people as such, was that I was possessive. I equated love with having a person—I didn’t think I had to understand him; I didn’t think I had to do anything. I thought love was someone appreciating me.

While a man will cooperate up to a point, no one really likes being a possession—we want our best possibilities encouraged. Freddie felt trapped, as later other men I was “devoted to” would feel.

In an Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Mr. Siegel, asked these crucial questions to have me understand my motives, some years later, with another man, Mr. Cameron:

Eli Siegel: Have you admitted to yourself clearly that you do want to own him? You should admit it casually. Like other women, you’re a charming holding company. Is there any greater comfort than owning a person whom you desire?
NH: Yes.
ES: Do you really think so? Do you believe you conquer the world by having Mr. Cameron need you? It’s told about in Manon Lescaut, and The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, also Phaedra.

Mr. Siegel enabled people to have a good time knowing themselves. What an understatement —he showed it’s the greatest good time! Everything is a means of your understanding humanity and reality and therefore yourself: from a sink-stopper, which he wrote a poem about, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet; from your mother to a poem about a rose by the classic French poet Pierre de Ronsard.

Learning that my personal torment was akin to what other women have gone through and that literature arose from it which I could study, was a tremendous thrill.

I began to see the significance to me of getting a man to act like I was everything to him. We can’t own someone—they will object, and we object, because we’re after something larger. Was there any greater comfort? Yes, I came to see, it is having a purpose with a man that you really like yourself for having, and that he can really like you for! That purpose is good will, which begins with the desire to know. Mr. Siegel’s good will was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever met: he wanted to understand people, see what interfered with a person’s best possibilities, which he encouraged with magnificent honesty, kindness, and style.

Aesthetic Realism showed me that the world was in fact the other half of myself. Love is defined by Aesthetic Realism as proud need. We are proud when our need of someone is because we honestly like the whole world more through them.

She Didn’t Want to Know Herself

A play with a woman in it who acts as if she knows her mind and knows who she loves, but does not know herself or want to, is Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill, which I saw performed some time ago at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It’s O’Neill’s first full-length play and in Eli Siegel’s great lecture on it, which has been presented in dramatic form by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, Mr. Siegel said it is likely O’Neill’s best. Mr. Siegel explained the central question being dealt with by O’Neill, and it’s about knowing:

“The world on the one hand is unknowable and on the other is a fetter. Trying to solve the situation of the world as unknowable and also as too restrictive, has been gone through by everyone…”

The play is about two farming families—James and Kate Mayo and their sons, Andy and Rob, and Mrs. Atkins, a widow, and her daughter Ruth—a young woman who, because she doesn’t want to know what she really feels, including about love, makes choices that have a disastrous effect.

As the play opens, Rob, age 23, tells his brother he’s decided to leave for a long trip on a boat, working for his uncle, a ship’s captain. Andy, age 27, tells Rob he understands there must be good opportunities to be found in those foreign ports, but he wishes Rob appreciated the farm more. Robert responds:

ROBERT- Supposing I was to tell you that it’s just Beauty that’s calling me, the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East, which lures me in the books I’ve read, the need of the freedom of great wide spaces,…in quest of the secret which is hidden just over there, beyond the horizon? Suppose I told you that was the one and only reason for my going?

ANDREW- I should say you were nutty.

At this point we learn that Ruth Atkins and her mother are coming to dinner, and there’s tension between Andy and Rob about Ruth; we don’t know why, they aren’t able to speak about it. When Ruth first enters, looking for Rob, O’Neill describes her as:

“a healthy, blond, out-of-door girl of twenty, with a graceful, slender figure. Her face…is undeniably pretty…. Her small, regular features are marked by a certain strength-an underlying, stubborn fixity of purpose hidden in the…charm of her fresh youthfulness.”

So Ruth is a fresh, “out-of-door girl,” and also has a “stubborn fixity of purpose.” Many a woman has had a “fixity of purpose,” has made up her mind without wanting to know what she really feels—and we see this in Ruth, as she asks very intensely: “Oh, Rob, why do you want to go?” and Rob is surprised; he believes Ruth and Andy care for each other. He tells Ruth a good deal about himself, about when he was a child and often ill, how he would look out the window:

ROBERT. So gradually I came to believe that all the wonders of the world happened on the other side of those hills….That’s why I’m going now, I suppose….the horizon is as far away and as luring as ever.”(He turns to her—softly.) “Do you understand now, Ruth?”

RUTH. (Spellbound, in a whisper.) Yes.

This answer isn’t honest, as we’ll soon see; in fact, Ruth does not understand. And Rob, who also doesn’t know himself, tells Ruth that when he decided to go away, he realized he loved her:

ROBERT. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I feel I have to. It can’t matter now that I’m going so far away, and for so long—perhaps forever….I realize how impossible it all is–and I understand….I saw Andy’s love for you–and I knew that you must love him.

RUTH. (Breaking out stormily.) I don’t! I don’t love Andy! I don’t! (Robert stares at her in stupid astonishment. (Ruth weeps hysterically.) Whatever—put such a fool notion into—into your head? (She suddenly throws her arms about his neck and hides her head on his shoulder.)

ROBERT. (Mystified.) But you and Andy were always together!Lucas Hall and Wrenn Schmidt as Rob and Ruth in Beyond the Horizon

RUTH. Because you never seemed to want to go any place with me. You were always reading an old book, and not paying any attention to me. I was too proud to let you see I cared because I thought the year you had away to college had made you stuck-up, and you thought yourself too educated to waste any time on me.

Like Ruth, I felt safe hiding any interest in a man until the man showed interest in me first. And when he did show interest, I had a victory, and thought less of him.

A woman can play with a man’s feelings, and her own feelings, rather than wanting to know them, and not see how cruel this is, and hurtful to herself.

What Is Our Foundation?

A few minutes earlier Ruth said she understood Rob’s feelings—why he wants to travel to see new places and people. But now:

RUTH. (Overcome by a sudden fear.) You won’t go away on the trip, will you, Rob? You’ll tell them you can’t go on account of me, won’t you? You can’t go now! You can’t!

ROBERT. (Bewildered.) Perhaps—you can come too.

RUTH. Oh, Rob, don’t be so foolish. You know I can’t. Who’d take care of Ma?…

ROBERT. (Vaguely.) I could go—and then send for you both—when I’d settled some place out there.

RUTH. Ma never could. She’d never leave the farm for anything…. And oh, Rob, I wouldn’t want to live in any of those outlandish places you were going to. I couldn’t stand it there, I know I couldn’t—not knowing anyone…. I’ve never been away from here, hardly and—I’m just a home body, I’m afraid. (She clings to him imploringly.) Please don’t go—not now.

Ruth is acting as if she knows herself and her mother. If she couldn’t stand those “outlandish places,” how can she love a person who’s just told her how much they mean to him?

Mr. Siegel is explaining Ruth Atkins and ourselves when he says: “The self can be as uncertain as thistledown and as insistent as steel.”

That evening Rob and Ruth tell their families they’re going to marry. Andy finds this situation unbearable, and though he loves the farm, decides to go on the boat instead. And Rob, who everyone knows was not cut out to be a farmer, has to run the farm, and fails at it.

They have a little girl, Mary, but Ruth is burdened by her daily tasks and blames her husband, the man who she insisted stay for her, the man who she prevented from following his heart’s desire. She’s not the least critical of herself, and she changes in a terrible way, deciding it was really Andy she loved all along. Ruth and Rob have a huge fight; she says things that show the harm to ourselves and cruelty to others of not wanting to know ourselves:

RUTH. Oh, if I’d only known! If I hadn’t been such a fool to listen to your cheap, silly, poetry talk that you learned out of books! If I could have seen how you were in your true self-like you are now—I’d have killed myself before I’d have married you! I was sorry for it before we’d been together a month. I knew what you were really like—when it was too late….You were saying you’d go out on the road if it wasn’t for me. Well, you can go, and the sooner the better!…Go and be a tramp like you’ve always wanted. It’s all you’re good for.

Mr. Siegel explains that the play, along with being “a tragedy in a new style….the tragedy of confusion,” is also:

an attack on a woman that rings true. The attack can be put simply: do not act as if you have made up your mind when you haven’t. It may not sound as scathing as some other attacks on women, but it does make for tragedy…. Ruth is really a tragic figure because she is so collapsible. She does not have a foundation….Her not being able to put the possibilities of fondness together causes her to be a trouble maker, a tragedy evoker, and a tragedy bringer-about.

Knowing Ourselves in Love

What would it mean to have a foundation, knowledge of who we are enabling us to be the person we want to be? This happened to me, and now I have the privilege of teaching other women what I learned. One of them is Caroline Zimmerman, age 26, attending graduate school while working at an import-export firm. She had keen eyes and a statuesque figure; she appeared confident, with an earnest quality as she spoke, but also a stiffness or guardedness. As an only child, she told us, both parents doted on her, and this made her feel special.

We asked Ms. Zimmerman this central question: “Do you see the world as essentially friendly, or unfriendly?” “Not friendly,” she said. She remembered her father saying, “It’s a cut-throat world out there.” And she saw coldness and intense fights between her parents.

It was our job, we told her, to have her see that the world was her friend; that she and the world had the same aesthetic structure: the oneness of opposites—such as rest and motion, severity and generosity, known and unknown, coolness and warmth. Through knowing the world she could understand herself and other people.

In one consultation she told us that it troubled her that she was still unmarried; she blamed peer pressure and articles women’s magazines. She was surprised when we asked:

Consultants: Do you believe that men and women can bring out good things in each other? Are you proud or ashamed of how you see marriage and men? Because if you really liked the idea of marriage, you’d feel more at ease not being married.

Caroline Zimmerman: Wow! That’s surprising. But…I think you’re right…I don’t feel proud, I feel ashamed of how I see men.

We asked if there was a particular man she was thinking about at this time, and she told us about two at her job: Jim Maxwell, who she went out with twice, and then declined a third invitation. Then she had several conversations with Del Catalon, but when she suggested they could have lunch together sometime, he never took her up on it.

Consultants: Did you feel spurned?

Caroline Zimmerman: I felt it a little, yes.

C: Do you think the feeling you had is related to the feeling Mr. Maxwell had when you declined his invitation: “Is there something about me that makes women feel they don’t want to be in my company? Is there something about me that makes a man not follow through when I make it clear I would be glad if he did? What is it about me—what’s wrong?” But did you gain anything from the brief acquaintance with Mr. Catalon?

CZ: I’ve learned about the world in many interesting ways from people.

C: Have you wanted to be an active force in having a man meet his own hopes?

CZ: No.

C: A man would like to have someone who believed enough in the best in him to encourage him to be better; and a woman would, too. There has to be an active hope for respect, an active purpose for respect.

We asked Ms. Zimmerman if she’d come to a wrong notion of love early. Was the feeling of being “special,” of being aloof and adored, also as to other things: that is, you keep yourself apart, and nothing should have you entirely?

Caroline Zimmerman: Yes, I recognize what you’re describing.
Consultants: So this doesn’t just have to do with men, this has to do with how you see the whole world. If you have closely to do with a man, he’s going to change you. You won’t want that to happen unless you see the world as good enough to change you. Love doesn’t begin with a person, it begins with a way of seeing the world.

There’s no greater news for people living today than what Ms. Zimmerman was learning: we can proudly know ourselves through the study of Aesthetic Realism!