Is Criticism Essential to Love?—& John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”

Love and Criticism: Is There Any Relation?

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of the play ” Look Back in Anger” by John Osborne 

Mary Ure, Richard Burton in "Look Back in Anger," 1959
Mary Ure, Richard Burton in “Look Back in Anger,” 1959

In an Aesthetic Realism class when I was 28 years old, Eli Siegel asked me a question concerning a man I was in turmoil about that every woman interested in love can usefully ask herself: “Do you want to conquer him, or understand him?” I said, “Both,” and Mr. Siegel asked, “Which is predominant?” I answered “I’m not sure”—but the truth was that my desire to conquer was predominant. “Has it torn you apart?” he asked.  Yes, it had.

And this is why I was in such pain about the men I’d had to do with. Studying Aesthetic Realism enabled me to change: to see how grand, cultural, wonderful it is to understand a man, and learn to be a true critic of myself and of him.

“Contempt is what ruins love,” explains Ellen Reiss in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue 1447, titled “The Desire for Criticism”:

We want criticism of our contempt, criticism that enables us to understand it so we can choose not to have it!…A friend is someone who cares enough for our life so that he doesn’t butter us or collaborate with us, but really wants what is hurtful in us to be less.

We Need to Be Critics of Our Purpose

In my teens and twenties, while attending high school and college, I spent most of my time, like other girls I knew, thinking how best to dress and use make-up, and being in the right place at the right time to have a big effect on a young man.  What Ellen Reiss describes in another issue of The Right Of, #1252, is right on the mark:

The nature of a woman’s thought about a man has mainly been: how to get him, how to manage him, how to keep him liking her.

This ever-so ordinary procedure is contempt, defined by Mr. Siegel as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”  Miss Reiss explains:

Because men and women have seen the world itself as something to manage, not know, they have wanted to conquer another human being….Women have wanted a man to make them important…. And if our being made important is our purpose with another human being …we will not be interested in knowing that person. The two purposes are mutually exclusive.

The first time I met Matthew Morrison, I was 22 years old and lounging on a couch, and Matt made a teasing remark about my being lazy.  I leapt from the couch and punched him in the solar plexis. I felt he’d hit a sore point in me—I was ashamed of how lazy I was, but angered he would question me.  I was also affected by his looks, energy, and down-to-earth manner, and this was the beginning of what I thought was the love of my life.

Two years later, though, I sat at an oak table in the antique store which Matt and I had opened together, my limbs feeling heavy as lead, worried, and angry, saying to myself, “He’ll never understand me!” Yet, as I felt I was the hurt one, I was uninterested in the questions Matt had–what he felt about his mother who had died a few months after we met; the “block” he’d had for weeks, unable to design his senior project in architecture school.

And the energy I had liked so much in him, I now resented. I felt he was a constant criticism of me and my lethargy, and that I didn’t have him securely enough–he was too busy with other people and things. This is the sheer contempt and ill-will that is in a woman wanting to conquer and own a man. Mr. Siegel would later ask me:

Where was he suspicious of you? The greatest suspicion of men is that in some way they don’t understand, a woman is trying to make them weaker. Was you purpose to have him dependent on you?

Yes, it was! I felt my whole life revolved around having him “safe and sound”; we fought increasingly, and I felt desperate. It was then that I’m so grateful I met the kind, critical understanding of Aesthetic Realism!

I was asked this question in my first consultation, central to our subject tonight: “Do you think you can know Mr. Morrison just by himself?” Yes, I thought I could! But they explained: “Women make the big mistake of thinking they can know one person out of the universe and not have to know anyone else deeply.” In his great lecture, Aesthetic Realism As Understanding, Mr. Siegel explains:

There is no such thing as a true desire to understand which is only centered about one thing or a few things….Can we understand ourselves without understanding all that we are connected with? Aesthetic Realism says no, we cannot.

I learned that day in April that I needed to know and be a just critic of the world to love a man, because it is the outside world that every man comes from and represents. It was, in fact, my attitude to the world which interfered in my caring for any man.

My consultants asked: “Do you think the world you are in is good enough for you?” No, I answered. A man’s job was to provide an exclusive haven where I was supreme and didn’t have to be fair to him or to anything.

As I saw how hurtful my scorn and aloofness were and began to be a critic of myself—and learned that the world and other people were, as Mr. Siegel described, the “outside explanation” of myself, my fatigue left. I began to be interested in understanding people and things, and I felt alive!

In Aesthetic Realism classes I had the honor to attend with Mr. Siegel, I was seen truly, with critical depth, kindness, and cultural largeness.  In one class, Mr. Siegel asked me: “What did you condemn yourself most for at various times?”

Nancy Huntting:  For wanting to do nothing.
Eli Siegel:  Have the read the poem “The Lotus Eaters” of Tennyson? Were they Hunttingish? And the desire not to be bothered is in Keats’ “Ode to Indolence.”

I was learning that through studying these works I could understand myself and others! And then he asked something which surprised me very much— ”Did you also get very angry?” I had cultivated a quiet manner, and didn’t like seeing myself as angry, but what immediately came to my mind was the time I threw a book at Mr. Morrison, and the many times I yelled cruel things at my mother.  How did Mr. Siegel know?  He explained: “People who have indolence can also tear up the place.” He composed this bold, dignified, humorous couplet I love, enabling me to have pleasure seeing the relation of two things that so troubled me:

Excessive indolence and a tendency to wrath,
That is what Nancy Huntting hath.

Is Our Anger in Behalf of True Criticism—or Ourselves Narrowly?

Something like the relation of indolence and anger that was in me is in the young wife, Alison Porter, in John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger.” This play is courageous in showing how unkind a woman can be when she’s after her own importance with a man, and doesn’t give a damn for understanding him or encouraging what is best in him.

Mr. Siegel said in a 1972 lecture, “Anger is of two kinds: anger that is large, or an anger for yourself”—and he commented then on the term “the angry young men”—a term used about characters in plays and novels, including this play— in relation to an anger he described as increasing all over the world because of the contemptuous use of people’s lives and labor to make profit.

Jimmy Porter is 25 years old and from a working class family; his father died when he was ten as a result of wounds he got fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Alison’s family is well-to-do, her father a retired colonel who served the British Empire in India, and her parents tried to stop the marriage, because they felt Jimmy had neither the money or background to be good enough for their daughter.

Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter in "Look Back in Anger"
Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter in “Look Back in Anger”

But Alison liked Jimmy’s energy— ”everything about him seemed to burn,” she says, “his eyes were so blue and full of sun.” He affects her very much—shakes her up, demands she think, fights her snobbish aloofness—but she is angry that he does. Though she defied her parents to marry him, she is now using them to justify her being scornful of her husband and his lack of an impressive job; she dismisses his care for music and his trumpet playing, and it makes Jimmy furious.

The stage directions describe Alison as having a “well-bred malaise”—which, like my indolence, comes from contemptuously looking down on people. She has the ugly duality Mr. Siegel once kindly criticized in me when he said: “I see you as a person who wants to love something securely, and at the same time not give up your disdain.”

As the play begins, Jimmy and Alison have been married for a few years and it’s clear Alison has thrown cold water on her husband’s enthusiasm for some time, and stonewalled his criticism with cool silences and acting injured. Jimmy doesn’t know what to do, but he hasn’t given up on her.

Mary Ure as Alison, Richard Burton as Jimmy, 1959
Mary Ure as Alison, Richard Burton as Jimmy, 1959

The stage directions tell us Jimmy has “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty.”  Sincerity and malice, tenderness and cruelty are opposites; and John Osborne’s play shows, as, I have learned all drama does, that to understand a self is to understand the opposites in that self. Jimmy Porter needs criticism as every person does, but he is not smooth, and there’s a desire in him to be a true critic of things and people—to put together where he’s for the world and against it—which can be respected.

It is a cool, cloudy Sunday evening in April, and in the Porter’s flat, Jimmy and his friend Cliff, who lives across the hall and works with him during the week in an open market stall, are reading the papers while Alison irons. Throughout the first act, Jimmy is the person who does nearly all the talking—he has an interest in things and people that is likable.

As Jimmy reads the newspapers, he objects to phony, obscure writing in them, and, making an effort to get Alison’s attention, he asks:

Jimmy: “What about you?…Do the papers make you feel you’re not so brilliant after all?”
Alison: [absently] “Oh—I haven’t read them yet.”
Jimmy: “I didn’t ask you that.”
Alison: “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening properly.”

This is clearly not the first time this has happened, and Jimmy shows how much he is hurt that his wife can just tune him out, as if what he says doesn’t matter.

Jimmy.  “Old Porter talks, and everyone turns over and goes to sleep.  And Mrs. Porter gets ‘em all going with the first yawn.”
Cliff.  “Leave her alone.”
Jimmy [shouting]. “All right, dear. Go back to sleep. It was only me talking. You know?  Talking? [leaning toward her] Remember? I’m sorry.”

There are painful situations like this occurring all over America now in kitchens and living rooms, and couples don’t know why. We asked Melanie Ward, a young wife who is having Aesthetic Realism consultations, “Does David Ward ever say –’You don’t listen— I didn’t say that?’” “Yes,” she answered, “He said something just like that to me the other day.” In TRO #1320, Ellen Reiss writes about this, and what she says is criticism everyone needs to take seriously if they are going to be successful in love:

[O]ne of the most frequent forms of contempt is the …putting on a show of listening while one’s mind is with superior company, the company within oneself.  Further…there most often is not full listening: the wanting to have another’s words really matter to one and to give those words the deepest thought possible.

Love & Criticism Have the Same Purpose: To Like the World

The purpose of criticism, Mr. Siegel showed, is to value things and people truly —a critic, he said, “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” Early in the play “Look Back in Anger,” Jimmy is criticizing all three of them:

Jimmy:  “We never seem to get any further, do we? A few more hours, and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away. Do you know that? Oh, Heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm — that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out hallelujah. Hallelujah! I’m alive!”

Jimmy wants to like things, and he wants his wife to encourage that. He’s asking for something Alison herself hopes for, but she feels stabbed, and tries to hurt him by speaking in a belittling way of his relation to a woman he cared for in the past.

Alison [to Cliff]. “Madeline . . . she was his mistress. Remember? When he was fourteen, or was it thirteen?”
Jimmy. “Eighteen.”
Alison. “He owes just about everything to Madeline.”

Madeline meant a lot to Jimmy, and he tells why a few minutes later: “to be with her was an adventure. Even to sit on the top of a bus with her was like setting out with Ulysses.”  Mr. Siegel explains what Jimmy is hoping for in these sentences, which I love:

Within every person there is a notion of self that is complete, though what it is, one doesn’t know.  One is looking to things outside of oneself to bring it out, the self which is deeper, more entire, more beautiful than the self at any one moment. If we meet some person who cares for us, who understands us, who can see what we feel — be for it, be against it if need be, but in terms of understanding — then there is a chance for ourselves to be complete. [The Right Of #693]

But Alison Porter is hoping something will happen to finally prove once and for all, her husband is a brute. Later, as she tries to describe to her friend Helena why she and Jimmy are having trouble, we see her cruel and irritated disdain — his past, the people he cares for, his relation to the world, are interferences to her:

Alison [to Helena].  “It isn’t easy to explain. It’s what you would call a question of allegiances . . . . Not only about himself and all the things he believes in, his present and his future, but his past as well.  All the people he admires and loves, and has loved. The friends he used to know, people I’ve never even known— and probably wouldn’t have liked.  His father, who died years ago. Even the other women he’s loved. Do you understand?”
Helena.  “Do you?”
Alison. “I’ve tried to. But I still can’t bring myself to feel the way he does about things.”

One of the most moving scenes in the play shows how much Jimmy is yearning to be known by his wife and others. He speaks about what he felt years before, as his father was slowing dying of the wounds he got in the Spanish Civil War, and he then, age 10, was the only person with him every day for months:

Jimmy.  “He would talk to me for hours, pouring out all that was left of his life. “

We understand Jimmy more deeply; every person’s past matters, is tremendously meaningful. But Alison hasn’t been interested.

In Act 3 she has decided to leave Jimmy, and her father comes to take her back home. This is a high point in the play—for we see the stiff, conservative Colonel Redfern, the opposite of her husband, tell his daughter that he and her mother were wrong; they shouldn’t have been against her marriage. To Alison’s further shock, he says Jimmy is right, that he’s honest, and:

Colonel.  “Perhaps you and I were the ones most to blame.”
Alison.   “You and I!”
Colonel.  “I think you may take after me a little, my dear. You like to sit on the fence because it’s comfortable and more peaceful.”

Her father’s criticism helps Alison to change, along with tragedy: she loses the baby she is pregnant with.  Shattered by this, she becomes less arrogant, and the play ends with her returning to Jimmy, with a much greater desire to understand.

Every Man Represents Reality

In his essay, “On a Person’s Not Being Known,” Mr. Siegel writes:

[I]f someone is to know us, we must feel that that person sees us as representing reality. . . . if we feel that someone sees us in a confined way, in a cozy way, only, we do not feel we are understood. . . . we want to be seen as a moving assemblage of light and shade: we abhor being “summed up.”

Melanie Ward, who could have a serene, madonna-like quality, and also be a tough manager, was finding after the birth of their little boy, Douglas, that she and her husband David Ward were more distant, and she told her consultants she’d asked herself, “What happened to the good feeling we had for one another?” David Ward, she said, “feels I don’t get excited about the world, and that I don’t have a steady interest or care for too many things.”  When her husband wanted them to go out and see things together, she insisted on staying home and she would often get stony or scornful. The Wards were also affected by what couples across the country are, worry about having enough income.

We asked Melanie Ward if she wanted to put aside her husband: “Have you hoped David Ward mean less to you? Could he get very angry because you want to keep him at a distance, yet still have him do what you want him to?” Melanie Ward wrote in a document for her next consultation that, as she thought about this question, she saw, “I do want to keep my husband at a distance. [And I’m seeing that] I’ve wanted to manage him and my son, by insisting that things be done my way.  I’ve felt extremely important doing this, while despising myself for being cold and unfeeling to what a person deserves.”

We spoke to her about how strong the desire in a woman is to feel she is better than the man she’s married, and the urgency of her having good will, which Mr. Siegel described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful”:

Consultants: Do you hope to respect your husband, or do you have some other hope? If you see something like a weakness in him, do you use it to have contempt, or do you truly hope to respect him more and place the weakness in such a way that you have more respect for the whole world, and see the deepest thing in another person?

One of the assignments Melanie Ward did that broke through the spurious superiority she’d been cultivating, was writing about her husband what Eli Siegel asked in the poem “Ralph Isham, 1953 and Later”—one of the most important questions ever asked about a person—

What was he to himself?
There, there is something.

She tried to describe her husband’s thoughts about his own father, and she told us it had her see how much it mattered to David Ward that he be kind and think deeply about his father, who he had been so angry with in the past, and that she wanted to encourage that.

“I have such a renewed love for David,” she wrote in a document to her consultants:

and I see how beautiful and necessary it is to choose good will . . . . [He], like myself, is a relation of sureness and unsureness, hope and uncertainty, the known and unknown . . . . I see how much I need my husband and the good effect he has on my life .

Melanie Ward’s life shows that when people everywhere can meet and study Aesthetic Realism—one of the tremendous, longed-for results will be real love, critical and kind, between men and women!