What’s Best in Us—& How Can We Be True to It?
By Nancy Huntting
With a consideration of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
When I came to New York City from where I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I didn’t know what was best in me—but even so, I felt I wasn’t true to it. I’d gotten a lot of praise from my parents and teachers, but at fifteen I wrote to my best friend that I was a failure.
At 27 this feeling hadn’t changed. Though it seemed I had everything I wanted, including a man who cared for me, I was very worried I wasn’t using my mind. I felt dull, a shadow of a person with no energy. Often my arms felt leaden, and it was an effort just to move. I wondered—what’s wrong with me?
I was able to learn what’s wrong when I met Aesthetic Realism. And I can say now with certainty—with a life that’s happy and rich because of it—the best thing in me and in every person is our desire to know the world, and honestly like it. It is our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism explains—and we need to understand the opposition in us to this desire. I’ll speak about my own life, what a young woman is studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and a great novel: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
A Difficulty about Truth
Truth, Eli Siegel defines in his Definitions and Comment, “is the having of a thing as it is, in mind.” And in a 1951 lecture he explained:
“One thing that all people have in common is a difficulty about truth….People do want like anything to know what’s true; and without knowing it they shudder and shiver and keep away from it. The purpose of mind is not to be afraid. It is not to ‘get’ things. The purpose of mind is to find out what things are.”
Mr. Siegel described the deepest desire of a human being: to like the world on an honest basis, that is, by seeing it as it truly is. This, I’m grateful to have learned, is the one way a woman will like herself. A woman’s mind will not be satisfied by anything less. But, because women haven’t seen this is what is best in them, there’s been a great deal of pain.
“What’s the greatest desire in woman,” Mr. Siegel asked in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974,“to be complete—or seemingly happy?” And he asked me in that class:
Eli Siegel: What is your complete self?
Though I certainly felt I was incomplete, I had never thought of asking this.
NH: A person wanting to know.
ES: Can you put it another way—’My complete self wants to like the world’?
I felt respected deeply as Mr. Siegel spoke to me; he had me value my own possibilities of mind. I now know that I, and every woman, cannot settle for less.
Going after what they think will make them happy, women do lessen themselves, particularly in the field of love, and they do have a sense of not being true to themselves. I was torn apart by the fight between using my mind to know, and the desire to have a man devoted to me.
Mr. Siegel asked me if I felt I was wholly myself with a man. No—I never did and I didn’t know why. With kindness and largeness, relating my questions to those written about in the literature of the world, Mr. Siegel described a purpose women have been driven by, and despised ourselves for.
ES: Do you believe you conquer the world by having a man need you? That feeling is in the novel Manon Lescaut, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and in Racine’s Phaedre. The whole universe can take the form of a person. Do you think something like that is working with you?
Yes, I came to see it was. And he asked me a question every woman needs to hear about the man she cares for:
Eli Siegel: Do you feel you have a true picture of him? We go from the ideal to the bestial—do you see him too eulogistically and also as a beast? Does your anger give him no qualities at all?
This was exactly what I did! I changed the truth about a man to suit myself: He had to be a superior being because he was mine, and should make me feel I was more important than anything else. When he did not act in keeping with what I created, I was shattered, wounded, and furious with him. Aesthetic Realism criticized the contempt that made me not see a man’s insides are real, not see his hopes are as important to him as mine are to me, and that he is against himself where he is unjust.
In this class Mr. Siegel used Pride and Prejudice to have me see myself and men more truly. “What did Elizabeth find in Pride and Prejudice?” he asked me, and he explained:
ES: Darcy was too proud, Elizabeth was too. As the work goes on Elizabeth finds Darcy also has feelings, is thoughtful, and not just a pleased aristocrat; and Elizabeth sees her own haughtiness. Do you think a man wants very much to be kind?
The answer is yes—it’s the best thing in every man and he’s hoping a woman will encourage him to be true to that hope.
Learning about Ourselves from a Novel
Pride and Prejudice is one of the books required as study for persons who teach Aesthetic Realism. “Darcy and Elizabeth,” Mr. Siegel said, “explain everybody.”
This novel shows the fight about what a woman wants most: to see what is true, or victories for herself? It’s also the fight about what’s the best thing in us. Jane Austen begins the book with this humorous sentence:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The novel is about the Bennet family: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Of Mrs. Bennet, Miss Austen writes in the first chapter, “The business of her life was to get her daughters married.”
The Bennet family first meets Mr. Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy, both single men in possession of good fortunes, at a local ball. Elizabeth happens to overhear Mr. Bingley urging Mr. Darcy to dance with her; but Darcy declines, saying, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Mr. Darcy hardly speaks to anyone there and is pronounced “so high and conceited that there was no enduring him!” by Mrs. Bennet.
While Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, later defends him:
“One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man…should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.”
“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”
“Elizabeth,” Mr. Siegel said in a class, “is always trying to get form out of her contempt.” I think this means that she tries to use her seeing something ugly in a person to be an accurate critic.
Elizabeth Bennet is a character who has affected people very much because she shows it matters to a woman that she see the world and other people truly. She can be haughty, but she also has a keen desire to see what she feels about things, and express her feelings with form, and she does not see men just as existing to make her comfortable and important.
Meanwhile, she sees Darcy as being insufferably proud.
At this point, Elizabeth’s philosophic sister, Mary, observes something which is crucial to the meaning of this novel:
“Pride is a very common failing I believe….there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain.”
The difference between true pride and vanity is the difference between truth and falsity, and it is what both Darcy and Elizabeth learn about through each other. “Vanity,” writes Mr. Siegel in Self and World,
“is the desire to please oneself though it may mean the excluding of reality. Pride is the desire to please oneself through the seeing and including of reality.”
Elizabeth is angry with Mr. Darcy because she feels he’s too pleased with himself by excluding the reality of other people. But her vanity is hurt, and this interferes with her desire to see him truly. When Charlotte urges she might find Darcy very agreeable if she danced with him, she responds:
“Heaven forbid!—That would be the greatest misfortune of all!—to find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”
That determination to hate does not represent the best in us—in fact it stands for the worst. But at the next ball when Darcy asks her to dance, she accepts. As they dance, Elizabeth reminds Darcy of something he had said earlier, that he “cannot forget the follies and vices of others,” so quickly, his “good opinion once lost is lost forever.” “You are very cautious, I suppose,” she asks, “and you never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?” And she expresses her criticism of him with satiric form: “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”
This is tremendously important. Darcy is doing what most people do—he has opinions he does not want to change, therefore they must be right. This is what prejudice is—you “pre-judge” so the truth will not interfere with what you wish to believe. What Elizabeth does not see is, in being “determined” to hate Darcy, this is true of her also.
Elizabeth later learns how much her criticism affects Darcy, and as Mr. Siegel was teaching me, that a man wants to be kind. Throughout his life Darcy had been flattered by women a great deal, but as he comes to know Elizabeth, he finds her desire to be sincere and say what she sees as true, irresistable.
Darcy falls in love: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” he tells Elizabeth, to her great astonishment, and he proposes to her. But he makes a point also of telling her of his “only natural and just” sense of her inferiority–her family’s “condition in life so decidedly beneath” his own.
Elizabeth, writes Jane Austen, “could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection…” However, she gives Darcy her opinion of his conduct:
“From the very beginning…your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
How Do We See People?
In Aesthetic Realism consultations women learn what is the best thing in them and how to be true to it. They become better, kinder critics of themselves and others. I feel tremendously grateful for the depth and beauty of what I have the privilege to teach as I see women’s lives change to happiness and pride.
Sara Conners is a young woman originally from Minneapolis, who works as a manager in a bookstore. She told her consultants she was very worried about her anger with people, how she could be cutting and sarcastic. She didn’t know the reason she was so against herself was because she wasn’t a critic with good will, especially with the people she was close to and met every day.
Like Elizabeth and Darcy, and most people, she too much took her first impressions to be the whole truth. Ms. Conners found flaws quickly, and felt she was deeper and keener than others. We were criticizing a steep drive in her to have contempt for people, which had made her lonely and bitter at the age of 25.
In a consultation she told us she had a wonderful Christmas because, she said sarcastically, she was not with her family. The conversations her sister and brother usually had at the dinner table, she told us, “are all about money and how they can make more of it, so I don’t want to be there.” “Do you think the way you are talking now,” we asked, ” has to do with why you’ve felt very worried about yourself?”
Consultants: You get very quickly to ‘I don’t want to be there.’ There’s disgust and contempt in your voice. It happens that the fiction of the world is peopled with many characters one wouldn’t want to spend Christmas with. At the same time, one likes reading about them. So do you think the way your sister might see at this time could have a novel around it and from it?
Sara Conners: Umm, yes.
Consultants: And that’s how you think about her?
Sara Conners: No, I don’t like thinking about her.
We gave Ms. Conners an important Aesthetic Realism assignment, to write about a person and try to see him or her as a novelist would. “Here’s a subject for a short story,” we said:
Consultants: There are people together for Christmas, and they’re talking about making a lot of money. And then you take each character that evening, thinking to himself or herself, alone at night. Do you think it would be the same as the way a person talked at the table, or different?”
Sara Conners: It would be very different.
Consultants: A person can talk a certain way, but that’s not just what the person is. And it’s not to praise the person, or to condemn the person, but people exist to be known.
Sara Conners is changing; she’s not so quick in her judgements. She sees more that other people are like herself, with a whole life and feelings inside.
“I see I was so mean,” she told us recently, “and wrong, about one of the women I work with. Now I’m very affected by her—I’m interested. And I’m so much happier.”
The Most Romantic Thing in the World
Mr. Siegel said in a lecture,
“If we are exact with ourselves, and say we are trying to see things completely and are in the process of doing so, we have a right to say whether things are good or bad. Until then, we don’t have such a complete right. The right to say that a thing is good or bad depends on the fulness with which we have tried to see it.”
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy come to be more exact with themselves, and not arrogantly to assume the right to say whether people are good or bad. Their honesty about themselves and increased desire to know is very moving.
When Elizabeth receives a letter from Darcy, she sees she’s been fooled by Wickham, a man who impressed her as being good as quickly as Darcy impressed her as being bad, but who in fact lied about Darcy to her. Jane Austen writes, “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.” Elizabeth says:
“How despicably have I acted!…I, who have prided myself on my discernment!… How humiliating is this discovery!—yet, how just a humiliation!… Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
This is a woman trying to be exact with herself and it’s thrilling. There is pride as she says “yet, how just a humiliation! …Till this moment I never knew myself.” There’s pride and humility as one thing–and she’s being true to the best thing in herself. As writer, Jane Austen expresses this in sentences that have a beautiful, energetic grace, a rhythm that is bold yet also thoughtful as it speeds and slows, goes on and stops.
The discussion between Elizabeth and Darcy towards the end of the book Mr. Siegel said, “is so taking…because it is two people trying to know.”
Elizabeth has discovered that, unbeknownst to her and her family, Darcy has done a great kindness to them, going to much personal expense to save them from anguish and disgrace. Because she has wanted honestly to question herself, she is able to have more accurate and proud emotions, and express them. “Ever since I have known [of your kindness],” she tells him, “I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it….Let me thank you…in the name of all my family.” Of her haughtiness and misjudgment of him, she tells him, “I have long been most heartily ashamed.” And Darcy says to her:
“I have been a selfish being all my life….spoilt by my parents… who… encouraged…me to…think meanly of all the rest of the world.… Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.”
There is beautiful passion here because a man feels through a woman he has been strengthened, able to see himself and the world more truly. So different from love and sex as presented most often in the media, this is the real thing. “Criticism,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is love,” and this book is evidence for that statement.
The best thing in every person—the desire to know and like and be fair to the world and people outside of us—is what the education of Aesthetic Realism encourages and strengthens through principles that are solid and true about women and men, including Elizabeth, Darcy, Sara Conners, me and people everywhere. ♦ ♦ ♦