Our Motives with Men—& the great novel Manon Lescaut

How Can Selfishness & Generosity Make Sense in a Woman’s Life?

By Nancy Huntting

Portions of this paper were published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1892

Kiri Te Kanawa as "Manon Lescaut" in Puccini's opera
Kiri Te Kanawa as “Manon Lescaut” in Puccini’s opera

Growing 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 of praise.

I 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.

However, 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:

The 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. [The Right Of #173]

In 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.”

Later, 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 it?”

NH.  I don’t think I would have seen it as contempt.

Consultants.  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.

Consultants.  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 unfair?

Yes! 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.

Generosity & Selfishness in Love

I 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 for me.

The 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 Czech novelist named Bozidar Styczynski. I thought this was wonderfully clever; it didn’t occur to me there was anything wrong in fooling people.

Tad 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 me.

Some years later I began to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel, who had 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.

By 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.

Real love, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is encouraging a person to care for the world. Doing this is at once generous and truly selfish.

Manon Lescaut & the Fight between Ecstasy & Ethics

Kiri Te Kanawa, Placido Domingo in Puccini's Manon Lescaut
Kiri Te Kanawa & Placido Domingo, Puccini’s opera “Manon Lescaut”

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:

Manon Lescaut 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 should.

Ecstasy 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.

The 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 says:

My 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.

Women 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.

It 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.

It 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.

The 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 in want”:

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…

First, to 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.

The 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 fooling men?

The 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.

Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo, Puccini's opera "Manon Lescaut"
Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo in Puccini’s opera “Manon Lescaut”

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?

LF. Yes, that’s true. I am too aloof—and also afraid.

Our 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.

“Do 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.

Lacey 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 the world?

LF. Yes!

Lacey 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:

Aesthetic 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 changed