Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism have explained something completely new about an emotion that troubles people very much—anger. We have two kinds of anger, one makes us strong and the other makes us weak. In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #188, Mr. Siegel writes:
Aesthetic Realism says that a good anger has like of the world in it, has respect for the world in it; and a bad or hurtful anger has dislike of the world in it, or contempt for the world in it….what differentiates a handsome anger from an ugly anger is whether the anger is narrowly personal, is all for the advancement of ego in its separation, or is for something beautiful and just, sustained by space, time, and history.
Aesthetic Realism teaches a person to distinguish between these two angers, and to criticize the “narrowly personal” anger that weakens us. And through this education, people learn what it means to have anger in behalf of respect for reality, making us proud and strong. That is what happened to me and it’s what now to teach men in Aesthetic Realism consultations.
I am going to speak about what I have learned, and about aspects of the life and work of one of America’s most loved entertainers, who, on The Honeymooners gave humorous form to a puffed up, narrow anger and also showed how much a person wants to change: Jackie Gleason. He was a true artist, but he suffered tremendously because of the unjust anger he had at the world and people.
Anger and How We See the World
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that we have an attitude to the whole world—is it our friend or an enemy? In his definitive lecture, “Aesthetic Realism and Anger,” Mr. Siegel writes:
The desire to be angry comes from the fact that we feel, very early, that what is going on in this world is not what suits us. And the thing that we can do then is to say that the world is a bad place for us, or we can try to find out why it doesn’t suit us. This is not an easy job. To understand is difficult. And yet it is the only thing that will save us from carrying on an anger day after day.
Growing up in Florida, outwardly I did not seem like an angry person. I tried to be cheerful and there were things I honestly liked, such as going to my neighbor’s house to see the new litter of puppies their dog had. But inside I often had that feeling Mr. Siegel describes—that the world was a bad place.
I felt this very much in my family. The Coopermans had many things people want—a nice home, vacations every summer. But the way we cared for each other and then could be distant made me angry. Going out to a restaurant or to a friend’s house, we looked like an affectionate family, but I knew that wasn’t the whole story. At home, my mother and father sometimes seemed bitter and resentful. But I never tried, as Mr. Siegel says, to “understand” what my parents felt. Instead I had contempt—felt their lives were messy, the world was bad and I better keep to myself.
My angers as a boy were personal and vain. Once I went with my mother and father to get my first suit. In the store I hated every suit I saw—they were the wrong color or they didn’t fit right, and there was nothing I liked. But my parents said I needed a suit for a bar mitzvah I was going to, and they bought me one. I threw a fit. Sitting in the back seat of the car I sulked the entire way home. Finally my father stopped the car and my mother turned around and screamed at me “What do you want from us!”
The telling thing is what happened the next week. I put on the suit and I loved it. I couldn’t figure out why I had hated it so much just a few days earlier. One large reason, I learned, is this: I wanted to be displeased and angry. Aesthetic Realism has seen that this contempt drive is in everyone—the hope that nothing will please you. The self can prefer to be disgusted and angry because then you feel superior to everything; but this undermines our lives because it is against our deepest purpose, to like the world.
Jackie Gleason grew up so differently from me. Early he met things that were hard to bear. He was born in Brooklyn in 1916. In The Great One, biographer William A. Henry describes young Jackie as “plucky and adventurous,” yet he lived in grim circumstances—his parents were poor. Jackie Gleason grew up in a way people today are being forced to endure. His own later description of his family’s apartment sounds a little like that spare set of The Honeymooners:
The surroundings were dismal, just a round table and an icebox and a bureau that everything went into. The light bulbs were never very bright and the rooms were always bare.
When he was three Jackie’s sickly older brother, Clemence, died. His parents began to drink and they grew apart. One day, just before Christmas when Jackie was almost ten, his father left work and never came home. He was never seen or heard from again. This affected Jackie Gleason tremendously. I think it solidified the feeling he had early that it was a tough world and he better be tough himself—that a certain kind of aggressive street smarts would take care of him rather than thought about the world. Jackie became rebellious at school and dropped out. By eleven he was hustling pool in his neighborhood.
The place where life seemed best to Jackie Gleason was at the vaudeville house. Henry writes:
The little boy was certain that nowhere was there such happiness as he had seen in the Halsey Theatre. He begged to be taken back again and again. At home he imitated the funny dances he saw and the funny way the actors fell without hurting themselves.
The world at the Halsey did suit Jackie Gleason—it had surprise and order, slapstick and structure. In his teens Jackie was invited to emcee the Halsey’s amateur nights because of his “spontaneity, his ability to be funny off the cuff.” Henry tells how one night Gleason decided to “skid deliberately into some seltzer that had been spilled on the stage and take an extravagant windmilling pratfall.”
I think Jackie Gleason felt throwing his whole self into funny ways of using his body had the world seem likable—he was free. That’s what you feel in that lovely phrase of his that later became so famous—”And away we go!”—the self on the brink of going out of itself.
When Jackie Gleason was 19 his mother died. Now essentially alone, he moved to Manhattan to pursue a career in show business.
The Anger of Art and of the Ego
In his lecture “Poetry and Anger,” Eli Siegel made this surprising and important statement:
All art, in a sense, is anger, because you are taking a situation which doesn’t have form, and you are changing it, that is, destroying the formlessness of it, to make form.
I believe this is what Jackie Gleason unknowingly tried to do as a comedian and actor: give form to what could seem sprawling and formless, to find structure in a world that had seemed ill-made.
In 1950, at age 34, he emceed a show called Cavalcade of Stars on that new thing, the television. With his vibrant personality and his big, graceful body which, when he’s dancing, is like what Eli Siegel once described in an Aesthetic Realism lesson—”To have a mountain skip would be…delightful”; and with his keen instinct for what would honestly entertain, such as the 16 June Taylor dancers, Jackie Gleason filled that small screen.
Gleason did come to a form, a composition new to television: a mingling of reccurring sketches and music, of “pathos and…the broadest baggy pants comedy” as one critic put it. He brought this new form into people’s living rooms, and became an overnight success, soon known as Mr. Saturday Night.
But with all his success Jackie Gleason was troubled and angry. His first marriage was, at this very time, failing. He worried constantly about ratings and could not sleep. He overate, then checked into a hospital to lose weight. And Gleason’s carousing became legendary, as did his excessive drinking. Jackie Gleason did not know his deepest purpose in life was to like the world—that, as Eli Siegel writes in his essay “Alcoholism; Or, You Got To Find the World Interesting,” he needed to see “in the ordinary universe a zip, a tingle, a blandishment.” Instead, Gleason wanted to beat out the world through being a tough show business success. He was competitive and very often mean.
This is vivid in the contemptuous way he treated his writers. His biographer describes how Gleason seemed to get a thrill humiliating them, making them grovel as he passed judgement on their work. He short-changed them on money, and most reprehensible of all, he refused to give them credit for creating the characters that made him famous for decades. All the characters Jackie Gleason played, except for Ralph Kramden, were created in the first shows by his writers—but Gleason insisted he created them himself.
Leonard Stern summed up what most of Jackie Gleason’s writers felt when he said:
I think he resented us because we did something he knew he needed and couldn’t do for himself.
That is a tremendously important statement. Jackie Gleason preferred to be resentful and angry rather than grateful for where the world had been of use to him. The desire to be ungrateful makes us mean and miserable and only Aesthetic Realism explains why. Men learn about this in consultations, to the everlasting benefit of their lives, through hearing questions such as: Would you rather be pleased by the world or resentful of it? When do you feel stronger—when you’re grateful or when you’re angry? If the world did come through for you, are you sure you would only like it?
Jackie Gleason suffered greatly because he did not hear questions like these. I believe unknowingly he didn’t like it that the world had been good to him in such a big way, enabled him to have success in his career—it blew his case that the world was a place that hurt him. What Eli Siegel says in his lecture “Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Discomfort” describes Jackie Gleason—that a “problem…drinker” is one who “maintains his anger.”
Anger and Sweetness
In his lecture “Poetry and Anger,” Eli Siegel speaks about opposites every man is trying to put together:
The energy which is our anger ought to find a form which goes along with our benevolence, our sweetness, our warmth.
These opposites are what we find in the various characters Jackie Gleason played—anger and sweetness, toughness and sentiment. For example he played The Poor Soul who is described as a “saintly, wide-eyed innocent…his button eyes as imploring as a beagle’s. Then there is Reginald van Gleason III:
That devil may care playboy [with] a top hat tall enough for a stovepipe, a cape as sweeping as draperies… he drinks relentlessly…He can be as rude as he likes to whomever he wishes to abuse…Reggie wants to be alone with his.hostility, his anger oward the world.
A beagle’s eyes and a hostile playboy—that is sweetness and anger. And he didn’t know it but through his work Jackie Gleason was trying to make sense of his two attitudes towards the world: where he wanted to be sweet to it—though even in the sweet characters there was a bent towards being hurt; and where he wanted to stick out his tongue at everything and be a tough guy.
In the movies he played Minnesota Fats, the steely pool shark in The Hustler; and then the title role in the movie Gleason wrote—Gigot, the mute, gentle street person of Paris, abused by ruffians and loved by the cats and dogs, who takes in the child of a prostitute and cares for her.
I think the anger and sweetness of Jackie Gleason are most successfully one in his lovable, irascible bus driver, Ralph Kramden, who shows these two feelings as he clenches his fist and says to his wife, “To the moon, Alice!”; and then says at the end of so many episodes, “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
In his life Jackie Gleason had a purpose that weakened him terrifically—he wanted to conquer the world through show business and he cultivated acquaintances with persons in power like then President Richard Nixon. Yet even when he did get all the trappings of success—fame, money, the affection of America—Gleason felt like a failure to himself. He once said to an interviewer:
You can be ruined by success…Believe me, pal, I know. You no longer have the incentive to give your best. You no longer mix with people who are living real, struggling lives. You are out of it, and life takes its revenge…Success ruined me.
Jackie’s fellow artist on The Honeymooners, Art Carney, once said: “It used to make me miserable to see how little joy he got out of everything he had achieved.” Jackie Gleason needed criticism of his contempt.
There were times he did have an anger that strengthened him. In Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes: “When we have anger which comes from an awareness of ugliness, injustice, this anger we are proud of. It integrates us.” Once Gleason was on a promotional stop of a train taking the cast of a show to the South. In the cast was a black dancer, Mercedes Ellington. When photographers began taking pictures and saw her, one shouted demeaningly, “What are you doing here?” Gleason was furious. He proudly pulled Mercedes Ellington to his side and stood with her for the entire shoot—forcing photographers to take her picture with every one they took of him.
Why Are Men Angry in Love?
In Self and World Mr. Siegel writes: “The purpose of love is to feel closely at one with things as a whole.” But if a man is angry at the world it will interfere with how he sees a particular woman. That is what occurred with Jackie Gleason, who was married three times.
His first marriage to dancer Genevieve Halford lasted 40 years, though they lived as man and wife for only a few. When they first met, Gleason was taken by Genevieve’s soft, pretty appearance and her outward serenity—he was more jagged and rough. Jackie Gleason told friends he was seeing a “serious girl” and he pursued her vigorously. They were married in 1936 when he was twenty.
But Jackie Gleason did not want to think about who Genevieve Halford was. One writer says “He wanted a woman he could.enshrine.” A woman you enshrine is not a real person—she is a possession you use to glorify yourself. From the outset the marriage was rocky. Genevieve Halford was angry with Jackie Gleason, too, because he was clearly more interested in his career than in her feelings or those of the two daughters they had.
Jackie Gleason said plainly that he felt like a failure as a husband and father. Speaking about his late-night partying and his frequent infidelity to his wife, he once wrote, “I have no legitimate argument for my conduct.”
I feel so fortunate to be learning from Aesthetic Realism about love. Jackie Gleason and I are very different, but like him, when I didn’t get my way with a woman I would get angry.
Once, when a woman I was interested in had some criticisms of me, I was furious. In an Aesthetic Realism class, the Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss, taught me what a woman wants most—good will. She said, “You felt a woman should go along with any plan you had. The large question is whether you had good will for the lady.” I said, “I don’t think I did,” and she then asked, “So what right do you have to be angry?”
Ms. Reiss asked as the discussion went on, “Have you thought about what it would mean to strengthen her?” I hadn’t, and Ms. Reiss said humorously, “He who doth not have a purpose he is proud of, ought not to complain. Do you think you need to see women better? “Yes,” I said, and she asked, “Is that such a terrible thing?” No, it wasn’t. I felt so encouraged when Ms. Reiss said, “This is a local stop—go on to becoming a better person.
I am so happy to say that because of Ms. Reiss’ good will that is exactly what happened. She taught me the purpose men need to be proud in love: to want to know a woman, to think about how her life could be stronger. Learning this enabled me to fall in love with the woman who is now my wife of ten years, Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman. I feel grateful and proud for the privilege it is to know Meryl, what she’s hoping for in her life.
The Opposites, The Honeymooners and Anger
I think some episodes of “The Honeymooners,” with the superb ensemble work of its principle actors—Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph—are art and illustrate this definitive principle stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The show at its best puts together fury and tenderness, thick and thin with those bodies of Ralph and Norton, humor and seriousness, ordinary people and universal emotions. Life itself seems to get into that lovely, plain kitchen. The show has a good roughness, and at times you feel something like what Eli Siegel once said in describing the French stage of the 17th century with the comedies of Moliere: “It must have rattled with the pranks of merry bodies, weighing something.”
At some point in almost every episode Ralph gets steamingly angry. Jackie Gleason gives no-holds-barred form to the ego strutting and then enraged when its plans are foiled—he makes anger look ridiculous. In “Aesthetic Realism And Anger” Mr. Siegel writes: “The worst kind of anger is the quiet kind, the kind that is…smooth disappointment.” Ralph’s anger is anything but quiet—it’s all out. Yet Gleason was good, too, at giving outward form to the slow burn. But the crucial thing is this: Ralph inevitably sees his anger was wrong and he is ashamed, and as the show ends he’s sweeter and stronger.
In the episode “On Stage” Ralph and Alice are going to be in a play at the Women’s Auxiliary of the Racoon Club. Ralph, sure he will be discovered by a Hollywood director who will be in the audience, gets very pompous, talking with an affected “actor’s” voice. He is to play Frederick who is in love with Rachel, played by Alice. But Rachel loves Hamilton, whom Norton plays. Scripts in hand, the three rehearse, and when Norton hits a certain word the sparks begin to fly.
Later the play is performed, and afterwards the Hollywood director comes to Ralph’s dressing room, but says it is Alice he wants for his next movie, not Ralph. He leaves and Ralph’s bubble is burst, but just then Alice comes in and speaks to him so movingly, he see’s what really important in life.
I want people everywhere to know the one education that changes unjust anger in us, making us proud of ourselves and happy—the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel.