I once prided myself on being a practical guy who could take care of myself with an everyday, no-nonsense approach to life. I thought I was a tough person to fool, and was often suspicious of people who showed large emotion, thinking it was inevitably insincere. But I was also desperate to have big feelings myself, and I believe this was central in why very early, I had a deep care for acting and singing.
In an Aesthetic Realism class discussion, the Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked about these two things in me, “Do you have a hard time putting them together? You are a keen, sharp, nobody-is-going-to-pull-the-wool-over-my-eyes person, but you also want to see a sunrise.”
I felt “That’s really me.” I learned that the solution to the conflict in men about these two aspects of ourselves is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Men want to be factual, “nuts and bolts,” and we want to have large feeling, honest wonder. And wonder, which I’ll speak about tonight, is an important aspect of idealism, which Mr. Siegel defined as “thought about the world at its best.”
Wonder & What Gets In Our Way of Having It
In a 1948 lecture titled “Poetry and Practicality,” Mr. Siegel said “Reality is both practical and wonderful. Starlight shines on subway stations. What are you going to do?” And in a commentary to The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, which serialized this lecture, Ms. Reiss wrote:
The desire to see wonder in things is part of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest desire we have, the purpose of our very life: the desire to like the world. That is why, when a young child looks with wonder at a pussycat or blowing leaves, we feel something right and beautiful is taking place.
I had that wonder as a child when, near the end of summer in Miami Shores, all the mango trees began to be heavy with delicious, ripe mangoes — red, orange and plump. There were so many, my friends and I would go around the neighborhood with a very practical tool we invented and called “mango-getters” — a broomstick with a looped wire hanger at the end — so we could reach up into the trees and get the mangoes before they fell to the ground. All the children brought them home for our families to eat, and I was in awe that something so succulent and sweet was growing all around us.
But the big competitor of honest wonder Ms. Reiss also explains in her commentary:
Our contempt…has us inwardly define as wonderful that which makes much of us, or makes us superior….We want to see ourselves, however secretly, as the most wonderful thing in the world; and to see real wonder elsewhere would jeopardize our notion of ourselves as the most sensitive and precious treasure of all.
I remember once setting the dinner table for my family, carefully placing every utensil and plate in just the right spot. It’s good to have practical know-how about setting a table — but that wasn’t my intention. When my parents came in and said how nobody could set a table like Little Ben, I basked in what I saw as the tremendous glory of it, and felt vastly superior to my two older brothers who just didn’t seem to get the significance of what had occurred.
I wanted to see myself as the ideal boy, better than most, and got annoyed at anybody who didn’t treat me that way or was critical of me, feeling they were mean and had poor judgment. Meanwhile, I often felt flat and bored, stuck in myself, and was worried that I couldn’t be excited by things.
Aesthetic Realism shows with practical, urgent logic that our contempt makes it impossible for us to have a true idealism, a belief, with all the facts present, in the best possibilities of the world. Instead, we look for the flaw, hope that people are insincere fakers so we can be superior. We may think we are keen, but we recklessly undermine the best thing in us.
As I grew older, the rift between myself as savvy and practical, and wanting to be stirred and have feeling showed in many ways. I could go from a morning in corporate America, working for a financial services company on budgets, databases and computers, to being moved to tears within moments when, on my way to the cafeteria for lunch, I stopped to hear a chorus sing Christmas carols. The two things felt so different.
This rift affected my work as an actor, too. Once, as part of the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, I was preparing for a presentation of Eli Siegel’s lecture on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But as I read the part of Huck, who, Mr. Siegel says has sentences that are “aromatic with wonder,” I had a noticeable tendency to play him as a tough city kid. When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss said:
ER: Huck Finn doesn’t want the wool to be pulled over his eyes, and he also wants to be true to everything roman-tic. Do you think your toughness, street-wiseness and calculation is at one with your sense of awe, the grand feeling?
BC: No, it’s not.
ER: Do you think this matter of wonder you are at ease with?
ER: Huck Finn is a boy, he has comedy, there is some toughness, and then he says some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language. Can you benefit in terms of your whole life from questions this raises?
Then Ellen Reiss asked about how I saw the woman I was coming to care for, Meryl Nietsch.
ER: For instance, do you think your desire to be suspicious of Miss Nietsch is at one with your big feeling about her?
BC: No, it’s not.
ER: Does that make you angry?
ER: She’s got some nerve. You think you’ve got her number, and then you should have a large feeling about her? — something in you feels it should be one or the other.
Then she said something true for any man: “Bennett Cooperman wants to have two things together — sweeping feeling and he has never been more accurate.”
Practicality & Idealism in a Diary of the 1600s
I’m going to discuss passages from one of the most famous and lovable diaries of all time: The Diary of Samuel Pepys, who lived from 1633 to 1703 in London. Pepys kept the diary for nearly nine years, from 1660 to 1669, ending it only, and with great regret, because his eyesight was deteriorating. Eli Siegel said that Pepys was “one of the most attractive persons in any literature.”
Pepys’ diaries are a delight to read — the entries have such vigor and life. And they are relevant to our subject because as they tell about practical doings of life in the 1600s — what he ate, where he went, squabbles with his wife about money — and about large events in the 17th century that he lived through, such as the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London, they are written with energy and depth, and you feel they have size, honest wonder.
For instance, take this brief account of one of the most ordinary, practical things men do nearly every day — yet for Samuel Pepys in 1664 it was new:
Jan. 6 — This morning I began a practice which I find by the ease I do it with that I shall continue, it saving me money and time; that is, to trimme myself with a razer: which pleases me mightily.
This was new for Pepys because until then, he went to the barber’s to get a shave. Here we see him practical — this new method is easy and saves time and money. And yet he gets such enjoyment from it and even wonder — “it pleases me mightily” — that you feel it was a happening. It was, because this shave of 1664 was a microcosm of the ideal every man today is going for: that he and the world can work well together.
When he began the diaries, Pepys was 27, had been married five years, and had a promising young career as a principal officer in the navy administration. Pepys was, one website says, “a practical man of business but also had a wide-ranging appetite for knowledge.” He was an accomplished musician, loved books, and was an avid theatre-goer, often recording his impressions of early performances of plays by Shakespeare and others.
A diary entry from 1660 begins with practical matters, and then shows a man trying to stick to his ideals. Pepys was rising in his profession and knew others were aware of it. He writes:
Mar. 22 — Up very early and set things in order at my house…I went forth about my own business to buy a pair of riding grey serge stockings and sword and belt and hose, and after that took Wotton and Brigden to the Pope’s Head Tavern in Chancery Lane….Strange how these people do now promise me anything; one a rapier, the other a vessel of wine or a gun, and one offered me his silver hatband to do him a courtesy. I pray God to keep me from being proud or too much lifted up hereby.
This is admirable because it shows that Pepys didn’t want schmooze and gifts, and knew he had a danger, as we all do, of getting puffed up with his importance. His worry here is both a very practical one for a man’s life, and also shows that Pepys wanted to have integrity, a high ideal.
In March of 1658, he underwent a dangerous operation to remove a gall bladder stone. On each anniversary of the date, he gave what he called a “stone-feast,” a banquet for friends to express his gratitude for his healthy life. In fact, Pepys had a glass case made for the stone which he had preserved, and brought it out as part of the celebration. Here is the entry from 1662:
Mar. 26 — Up early. This being, by God’s great blessing, the fourth solemn day of my cutting for the stone…and am by God’s mercy in very good health, and like to do well, the Lord’s name be praised for it. To the office and…all the morning about business. At noon come my good guests, Madame Turner, The., and Cozen Norton, and…Mr. Lewin of the King’s LifeGuard …I had a pretty dinner for them, viz., a brace of stewed carps, six roasted chickens, and a jowl of salmon, hot, for the first course; a tanzy [a pudding made with a special herb]…and cheese the second; and were very merry…talking and singing and piping upon the flageolette. In the evening they went with great pleasure away, and I with great content and my wife walked half an hour in the garden, and so home to supper and to bed.
This entry brings up the question: how practical is gratitude, and does it stand for an ideal, something every man wants to feel on a factual basis? I learned from Aesthetic Realism that there is nothing more important, because when we are grateful, it means the world has done us good, made us stronger, and we’re glad to say so. Aesthetic Realism itself is immensely practical and kind in teaching men about this, and also about that in us that doesn’t want to be grateful to anything, and even resents it. Knowing about this fight enables a man to make choices that strengthen his life.
Practicality and Idealism: In Marriage and a City
Samuel Pepys was married to Elizabeth St. Michael, and while there are many accounts of happy times between Mr. and Mrs. Pepys — they took singing lessons together, decorated their home, went to the theatre — their marriage was often turbulent. Pepys had a roving eye, and acted on it. Though his wife didn’t have firm evidence of this for many years, she suspected it, and Pepys was immensely troubled about it, as his diaries show.
And in their day-to-day life at home there were the fights and disagreements that are frequent in marriages today, about matters that seem only practical, but that arise from something larger — one’s purpose, one’s ideals. For example, early in 1665 they fought about money:
Jan. 28 — Come home, I to the taking my wife’s kitchen accounts…and there find 7 [shillings] wanting, which did occasion a very high falling out between us, I indeed too angrily insisting upon so poor a thing, and did give her very provoking high words, calling her beggar, and reproaching her friends, which she took very stomachfully and reproached me justly with mine, and I confess…I cannot see what she could have done less. We parted…very angry, and I to my office to my month’s accounts, and find myself worth £1,270 for which the Lord God be praised.
First Pepys gives it to his wife, thinking, as many men have, that he is the superior budget keeper. Then, feeling guilty and unsure because he was mean, he has to puff himself by counting his fortune alone in his office. This is classic male ill will and obnoxiousness, and I know about it first hand.
Pepys couldn’t have known what Aesthetic Realism shows: a man can have an honest ideal to care deeply for a woman who stands for the world that adds to him, but he can also look to find weaknesses, even villainies in order to make less of her because he feels it’s an insult that she’s affected him.
When Meryl and I were seeing each other and thinking of living together, we talked one day about our budgets. Afterward, I was convinced I needed to instruct her about money — though I was no maven on the subject — and prepared in my mind for the second installment in my series of lectures when I would see her that night. But when Meryl opened the door with a smile, she had a thorough Excel spreadsheet of her entire budget in hand, gave it to me in a matter-of-fact way, and went to make dinner. My jaw hit the floor.
I told about this in the same Aesthetic Realism class I quoted earlier, and Ms. Reiss asked:
ER: When you wanted to talk with Ms. Nietsch about your budgets, was your beginning purpose like bringing her a bouquet of roses? Did you feel there was a deep closeness?
ER: When there is a discussion of money, it is a deep thing. People so much don’t trust each other on this subject — for example, there are pre-nuptial agreements. Why did you want to show her your budget?
BC: Because I care for her.
ER: You didn’t say that. Somewhere you are embarrassed that you care for Miss Nietsch so much.
I cannot say enough how thankful I am for the practical, life-changing education I’m receiving from Aesthetic Realism about love. Meryl makes my life richer and stronger and I cherish our very happy marriage. I need her energy and depth, the way she criticizes, with straight good nature, my tendency to irritability and brooding. Meryl has a deep desire to have a good effect on people, including in her work as part of the Aesthetic Realism teaching trio There Are Wives, and I love her for it.
Along with domestic doings, Samuel Pepys tells about two of the largest occurrences in 17th century London, both of which comment in a terrible way on the relation of practicality and ideals in how people are seen and a city is run.
First was the Great Plague of 1665, which, at its height, killed more than 6,000 people in one week. The germ of the Plague was carried by fleas on rats that infested the impoverished areas of the city. Those with money got out of London as fast as possible. But because of a horrible situation — unclean slums in which thousands were forced to live — a city of 93,000 lost nearly a quarter of its population within a matter of months.
The second tragedy is really the only thing that stopped the first — the Great Fire of London a year later in 1666. It began in one house, and within hours spread among the cramped, thatched-roof homes of, again, the poor inhabitants of London. Soon the fire jumped to warehouses containing oil, tallow, hemp and other highly flammable materials. A strong wind carried sparks everywhere, and the city went up in flames. Here is a contemporary painting of the time, showing the Great Fire.
Pepys’ first-hand account is one of the few that exist. It reads in part:
Sept. 2 — It began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane…Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters [boats] that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down…
The wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches…
People all almost distracted…and all over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of fire-drops…and saw the fire grow…in a most horrid malicious bloody flame…it made me weep to see it.
I respect Pepys’ feeling for all those people, his city, and even the pigeons. And don’t both of these events have a terrible meaning right now in light of what people all over the world saw happen to the poorest people of New Orleans when disaster struck their city? Economic injustice, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, makes for cruel impracticality because it arises from cruel ideals — the using of some people by others for profit, and not giving a damn about their lives.
What Men Learn in Consultations
Rick Durbin, a young man of Metuchen, N.J., works with a social agency to oppose economic injustice in the metropolitan area. His work is in behalf of a more ideal world, and yet to do it he’s got to be practical and tough, fighting unfair labor practices and the cynicism he can meet in people.
In his consultations, it became clear that, like many men, he’s had a tendency to see his work life as very different from his life at home with his wife — which he’s felt was a refuge, an “ideal” place of comfort and rest.
So it was a shock when, as a new home owner, he had to learn practical aspects of maintaining a house. He told us, “My father in law came over and handed me a power tool, and I looked at it like ‘what is that?!’”
To have Mr. Durbin relate his life at work and his life at home, we asked him to write about five people at his job and how each could have him be deeper about his wife, Sandra Durbin. These are two of the points he wrote:
1. Greg DeMarco is president of the metropolitan region. I have seen that Greg is trying to put together toughness and sweetness. He needs to be tough, especially when dealing with management. He has also shown sweetness when dealing with agency members. As I saw these opposites in Mr. DeMarco, I thought about how Sandra is also trying to put these opposites together. Sandy can be very sweet, for example, when she is caring for the plants and flowers in our home. I’ve also see her be tough when she has been critical of me, especially when I get annoyed too quickly. I know Sandra wants to feel that when she is tough, it is for the same purpose as when she is [kind or] sweet. Seeing these opposites in another person had me think more deeply about how I can encourage them to be one in Sandy.
2. When I attended a rally by workers and spoke to the president, Eleanor Tierney, I saw the passionate feeling people have that they be respected. One of the biggest issues workers are concerned about is not just wages, but whether they are treated with respect. Seeing this feeling in people had me be deeper about Sandra. I had more feeling about how important it is that she feel that I want to respect her as much as possible.
Mr. Durbin told us, “I’m grateful for this assignment, because it had me put together the work I do and wanting to know who my wife is. I feel my job can really have me be a kinder person and friend to Sandy.”
Rick Durbin stands for the beautiful, practical reality Aesthetic Realism makes possible in a man’s life: that he grows stronger, wider, deeper and kinder with every year.