I’ve seen firsthand that kindness is possible in love and in sex. In fact, it is crucial if a woman is to have the proud emotions she hopes for. I once felt kindness in love wasn’t possible, and I went after something very different. For example, having dressed in a clinging outfit, I remember thinking, “Let’s see if he can resist this!”
I told myself I was aching to have real love, but to a large degree, like many women, I used my body as a weapon, to affect a man while I acted cool and aloof. I was after what I learned from Aesthetic Realism is the very thing that always ruins love—I wanted a person to become weak about me. This purpose is contempt. It was mean and made it impossible for me to really care for anyone.
Though I could appear sunny, I worried about the increasingly cold, hard, and sarcastic way I was with men. Often I would drink before sex because I thought it would make me feel warmer. By the age of 23, I was so bitter and ashamed that for months at a time I wouldn’t have anything to do with a man.
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1248, Ellen Reiss explains:
The question about sex…is a matter of the great opposites of Self and World: Do we want to use our self, our thought, body, touch, to be fair to the world not ourselves—to respect it, see it more deeply? Do we want to use our self to have another person be in a better relation to the whole, wide world? Or do we want to…feel that we’re finally running the world… [through a person] who—in a tizzy—will make it seem all reality is meaningless compared to us?
As I learned about this choice, my whole life changed. I am proud to be studying what it means to be kind with the man I love very much, my husband Aesthetic Realism consultant and actor, Bennett Cooperman.
I Learned What Kindness Is
Eli Siegel defined kindness as “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” Wanting other things to be “rightly pleased,” I learned, begins with the hope that another person be stronger, in a better relation to the world, not weaker. And so, in order to be kind we have to know who a person really is.
I wanted very much to please a man, including in sex, and I read women’s magazines and books that gave tips. But I never felt kind as I did these things because I wasn’t thinking about who this man really was, or how he could be stronger. I wanted him to “adore [me] above everything in existence.” In Mr. Siegel’s definition of kindness, he says: “Kindness is accuracy…Where kindness is lavishness, gush, it very clearly is also unkindness.”
Aesthetic Realism shows that every woman has an attitude to the whole world, and this will affect how she sees men. As the only girl in a family with five younger boys, though I tried to be kind, mostly I tried to run everyone, order them around like a sergeant; then I would go to my room, close the door and dismiss them. I was grabby, and then aloof.
Meanwhile, I got a lot of praise from my father for my athletic ability and how I looked; and I became self-centered. I came to feel I didn’t have to think too deeply or accurately about anything outside of myself.
When I was affected by a man, I would try to engulf him and manage him. I would flatter him, give him things, while dismissing his relation to everything not me.
For example, there was Tony Davis, who was studying to be a pilot—a very good looking young man who had a lot of skill as a carpenter. Soon after meeting him I was invited to his birthday party. Thinking I was being generous, and also that I would beat out the competition, I baked Tony a cake, a replica of a 747 jet complete with stripes and windows; made homemade ice cream; and also gave him a book and his favorite music tape. Tony looked nonplussed and uncomfortable, and I was mortified. I knew I had been excessive, and had a gnawing feeling that I was out for something selfish.
In his lecture “Mind and Kindness,” Mr. Siegel explains:
The only kindness is the desire for another person to be more complete, more organized, stronger, more himself. All other kindness is fake.”
It never even crossed my mind to think about how Tony could be stronger or what he was hoping for in his life—why, for instance had he wanted to be a pilot? Why did he care for carpentry? Where was he confident and where was he unsure? I didn’t have what was described to me years later in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, “a certain generosity” thinking about how “this person [could] honestly like himself.”
Another time, a man I was seeing at college, Luke Tyler, who was a geology major from Texas, came over to my apartment to study. I strategically draped myself over a chair in a seductive outfit with a book, hoping Luke would stop studying and concentrate on me. Soon, I had my victory; there was sex. But afterwards I felt empty and ashamed. Luke was angry, and said he was never going to come over to study again—he couldn’t trust me. In The Right Of #1249, Ellen Reiss explains what I was going after:
In sex, too, people have felt the weakness of another made oneself important. A woman has felt triumphant seeing a man who seemed self-assured now act desperate, tumultuous, really senseless for her.
This would have been my whole life. Then, in the winter of 1979, I learned about Aesthetic Realism and began to have consultations. I heard the questions women throughout time have thirsted for—about how I saw the world, including how I saw men and love and sex. I was asked:
- Did you have respect for a man as you were able to get him into such a tizzy?
- Are you very taken by how taken he is by you?
- Do you see this man as a means of liking yourself through a shortcut? or do you see him as a means of your honestly liking the world?
I was given assignments such as, “Five questions you would like to ask a man that you are sure are kind,” and to write on the subject of “the proper use of legs.” I felt as if heavy weights were taken away!
When I began to see Bennett Cooperman, I respected him enormously. I saw him be a kind friend to people. And the more we spoke, the more I felt, “I need his perceptions and his criticism of me!”—which he gave often with humor. And as I thought of where Bennett was critical of himself—how he could see his mother better, or a person he worked with, or the character of Iago he was working on for a dramatic presentation here of Eli Siegel’s lecture on Shakespeare’s Othello, I began to have a new emotion: a feeling of pride in being able to respect a man and in thinking about what would make him stronger.
What We Can Learn about Kindness from Adam Bede by George Eliot
George Eliot is a novelist I have come to love because of the deeply kind way she sees and portrays people. Eli Siegel once said in a lecture “George Eliot did a great deal to make understanding something as important as it is today.”
I speak now about some aspects of the character of Hetty Sorrel from her novel, Adam Bede, which takes place in the farming town of Hayslope, England during the 1800s. Her fate in this novel is a tragic one; yet the purposes Hetty has, represent the ordinary selfishness and unkindness in women everywhere, not only in novels. And we can see through her the fight which Mr. Siegel explained in The Right Of titled “What Opposes Love”:
Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite.
Hetty, a beautiful young woman, has lost her parents and comes to live with her relatives on a farm. She is angry at being poor, feels the world has rooked her, and uses her body to have power over men. Hetty dreams about how she will be a rich lady with satin dresses and jewels, envied by all. In prose that is deep and critical, George Eliot writes about this young woman’s vanity:
Hetty Sorrel often took the opportunity…of looking at the pleasing reflection of herself in those polished surfaces…she could see herself sometimes in the great round pewter dishes that were ranged on the shelves above the long…dinner table, or in the [kn]obs of the grate, which always shone like jasper.
Amidst vivid descriptions of the world that she dismisses, we see Hetty loving herself at the expense of a wide, rich reality around her. Though she works carefully in the dairy, she essentially sees everything as dull and uninteresting, except for the thrill she has in affecting men.
Many men are interested in her, including Adam Bede—the main character of the book—a carpenter who is very much respected by the people of the town. But it is the attention of a young wealthy squire, Arthur Donnithorne that Hetty really wants. George Eliot writes:
Hetty blushed a deep rose-colour when Captain Donithorne entered the dairy and spoke to her; but it was not at all a distressed blush, for it was inwreathed with smiles and dimples, and with sparkels from under long curled dark eyelashes; and while her aunt was discoursing to him about the…[dairy] Hetty tossed and patted her pound of butter…with quite a self-possessed, coquettish air, slyly… conscious that no turn of her head was lost.
Hetty uses Arthur’s being smitten by her to puff herself up inwardly and scorn the world around her. George Eliot says her thoughts about Arthur had a “narcotic effect,” making her see things “through a soft, liquid veil, as if she were living not in this solid world.” And yet, with the softness, there is a tremendous hardness in Hetty too. Like many women, like me of once, she cannot be honestly moved and affected. George Eliot writes with critical compassion:
We must learn to accommodate ourselves to the discovery that some of those cunningly-fashioned instruments called human souls have only a very limited range of music, and will not vibrate in the least under a touch that fill-others with tremulous rapture or quivering agony.
When a woman cannot respond to what has meaning, she is not kind and she feels awful. In his definition of kindness Mr. Siegel explains: “To neglect things, not to want to know them, not to see them as beautiful or as having meaning when they have, is to be unkind.”
Hetty’s aunt, Mrs. Poyser says with concern for her, “there’s nothing seems to give her a turn I’ th’ inside…It’s my belief her heart’s as hard as a pebble.” One of the things that makes Hetty’s heart “hard”—as it did mine—is her purpose to affect men, see them as weak fools, while she is superior and cool. George Eliot writes:
Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her…She knew still better, that Adam Bede—tall, upright, clever, brave Adam Bede—who carried such authority with all the people round about…she knew that Adam…could be made to turn pale or red any day by a word or a look from her…she liked to feel that this strong, skilful, keen-eyed man was in her power.
And George Eliot writes of Hetty’s “cold triumph of knowing that he loved her.” This contempt cripples a woman’s ability to have large, kind emotion.
Arthur Donithorne, like other men, is very much affected by Hetty and feels she is an easy conquest. He arranges to meet her secretly in the woods. He is ardent, but deeply cold and calculating. Hetty is flattered by his being so clearly swept by her, yet inwardly, she remains aloof from him. She doesn’t want to know him, including the fact that a rich squire will never marry a poor country girl. Later, there is sex, but George Eliot says that Arthur is “mortified” by his actions with Hetty.
Kindness in Love Is Aesthetic
In a class some years ago, I asked about something which is related to what George Eliot describes in Hetty Sorrel—the inability to be deeply affected by things—which troubles women very much. What stops a woman from having the big feeling she hopes for in sex? There have been thousands of articles in women’s magazines showing how worried women can be, but only Aesthetic Realism explains why.
Like many women, I was troubled because I never had the large feeling I hoped for in sex. I would pretend and later feel like a fraud.
I learned that what stops a woman from having feeling in sex is exactly the same as what stops her from having feeling about the world as a whole. InThe Right Of Ellen Reiss writes:
The only way sex will be sensible, beautiful, and kind is if it is a continuation of the desire to know—not a substitute for it, not a saying, “People aren’t worth thinking about deeply, but they should make me glorious.” Sex is what it was meant to be when a person feels about another: “You stand for a world I want to know and never stop knowing.”
Early in my marriage, though I had changed a very great deal, I felt there was an impediment in me to being more affected by my husband and I asked about this in an Aesthetic Realism class. I said sometimes I was aware of myself having an effect. Ellen Reiss asked me:
Do you think this matter of feeling you are affecting a man through [how you look] has anything to do with your not feeling what you want to feel?
Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman. I think so.
Ms. Reiss showed that when a woman does affect a man, it isn’t just herself that’s affecting him—it’s the world. It is both personal and impersonal, intimate and wide. A woman has reality’s opposites such as straight line and curve, logic and emotion, power and grace, sweetness and strength. “If a woman wants two things,” Ms. Reiss explained, “for a man to honor the world but also to make her the most important thing—it can make for certain impasses.”
I had that impasse. Ellen Reiss showed that there are two reasons for a woman’s not having a fulness of feeling as she is close to a man. The first is ethical: she is deeply afraid that in sex she will have contempt for the world and the man, and also be used by him for contempt. The second is, she feels something standing for the outside world—a man—has too much meaning.
I understood better why, sometimes, after having large feeling about my husband, I would suddenly find myself giving him an order, or get very busy cleaning the house. Ellen Reiss asked: “If you are affected fully will it be too much of a tribute to what isn’t you?” ‘Yes,” I said. A man stands for the world different from us and we can either be angry that he affects us, or grateful that he has so much meaning, and want to know him as deeply as we can.
This discussion changed me tremendously. I am grateful to feel now as I am close to Bennett that he stands for a world I want increasingly to know and be affected by; and this has made for passionate emotion that takes in both my mind and body. I love Aesthetic Realism for enabling women—and men—to respect ourselves on this great subject of kindness and sex.