Aesthetic Realism explains the fight that can be in women between honestly appreciating the world, and wanting praise just for ourselves. In his book Definitions and Comment, Eli Siegel defines “appreciation” as “The enjoying of a thing by seeing it as it is.” And he explains:
Pleasure from a thing is based either on knowing the thing or it isn’t. If pleasure does not arise from knowing a thing, it comes from something the self having the pleasure brought to the thing at the expense of what that thing was. The thing is then either underestimated or overestimated. In neither instance is there that being at one with, or accurate relation with, what’s real; which…is of pleasure itself.
That “accurate relation with what’s real,” includes, I have learned, our husbands, a co-worker, a meal we may be preparing.
Growing up on the south shore of Long Island, I had a real appreciation for the lush beauty I saw around me. I liked learning about the yellow forsythia, and particularly liked the weeping willow tree, which asserted itself high into the sky while its branches curved so gracefully towards the earth. And I had pleasure trying to know the geography and waterways where I lived as I studied a map and made a replica of Long Island out of plaster of paris, with a blue hand-painted ocean, sandy beaches and land.
But I had another desire. In his great, kind lecture, “Seeing and Grabbing,” Mr. Siegel explains:
The child can look very early on what is around it as a thing to be captured—it becomes a little Alexander or a little Wellington. Likewise, however, it has the tendency to see. To understand how, in the same organism, these two things can be so deep and so constant and can be mingled in so many ways—that is the understanding of a person.
I was “a little Alexandra,” as I smiled and coaxed my father to help me with my school projects so I could beat out Johnny O’Brien. I respected Johnny for the careful way he worked on his projects, but I remember feeling triumphantly superior to him when I came to school with my handmade wooden boat—which my father had actually made—complete with a rubberband-driven propeller. But when the other students said mine was better, I felt very ashamed. Later, Johnny looked at me critically and said, “You cheated because your father made that!”
I also used my blonde curls and angelic appearance to look on what was around me “as a thing to be captured.” I remember vividly descending the stairs one Christmas in my new red dress, to a crescendo of “ahs” from my grandparents, god parents, aunts, and uncles. Though I basked in this attention, I also felt uncomfortable. I felt increasingly dull and languid, and sometimes I didn’t want to come down at all and would hide in my room.
Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked me: “Is the main purpose of the self to get praise or to praise rightly? If a woman deserves praise she should get it, but Aesthetic Realism says the thing that makes a person feel not at ease is that we have not seen the world well.” This explained why, though I was interested in art and music and studied both in college, I felt increasingly that knowing things was too slow compared to the swift pleasure I got when a man admired my looks or when I got a new outfit or a coveted piece of jewelry. At the same time, no matter how much I got I was never satisfied. Mr. Siegel said in his lecture:
When I use the word grab, I mean the tendency, in a premature and not beautiful way, to take things and make them part of oneself without having seen them. The tendency to see is to make things part of oneself through knowing them.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism years later that, like every girl, I had come to an attitude to the whole world, which included how I saw money, my family, men, books, food—everything. I too much wanted to grab and manage the world—not have it affect me deeply: and I also wanted to dismiss and get rid of everything—have myself pure.
Once as a child, when I saw some plastic toys I liked in the five and dime, I began stuffing them into my pockets. My mother criticized me, and made me return them. Later, when I got my first credit card, I was driven to buy much more than I could afford. It was this way of seeing, based on contempt, I later learned, that had centrally to do with the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia, which I had for years—in which a person alternately gobbles and discards and then starves themselves. As I have told in other papers, my study of Aesthetic Realism enabled this to end!
The Fight in Love between Seeing and Grabbing
Beginning with my father, I thought that a man’s job was to appreciate me, and really I was very little interested in who the man himself might happen to be. This was my state of mind when I began to date Jake Carson, and I didn’t understand why, as with every other relationship, things weren’t going so well. In an early Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked with critical humor, “Are you very taken by how taken he is with you?” “Yes,” I said, and they asked:
Consultants. Do you see Mr. Carson as wholly existing?
Meryl Nietsch. I don’t know.
Consultants. Do you think what you can make up about a man is preferable to who he is?
The answer was yes. Often when I felt attracted to a man I would fantasize about how he would adore me. Once, at a rock concert amidst hundreds of people, I was sure the male lead saw me in the audience, was interested, and in fact was singing to me. Ellen Reiss asked me so kindly: “Do you think that you are afraid of the full life of another person?”
Meryl Nietsch. Yes.
Ellen Reiss. You are. You’re afraid of the insides of people…there’s a stoppage in you…and there’s a whole aspect of a person that you don’t recognize as real.
Meryl Nietsch. What is that?
Ellen Reiss. It’s the inner life of the person. It’s the wholeness of a person’s feelings. It’s the world in a person. And people in the history of amour have loved shells of other people, because they are terrified of all the dimensions of a person.
Through my Aesthetic Realism education, the cold, self-centered way I saw the world and people changed, and my desire to know and see who a man really is, and use my critical perception to want him to be as strong as he can be, has grown. The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world.
Studying this principle has made possible my happy marriage to Aesthetic Realism consultant Bennett Cooperman, whom I love and respect. I see it as a wonderful opportunity to try to understand my husband of nine years—how he sees his mother, a song he cares for, a character he is studying in a play, what he felt at five growing up in Miami. I have seen that what a man wants from a woman is for her to know him and be a kind critic. This is so much greater than the small, narrow pleasure I got from trying to own and conquer a man.
Pocahontas and the Desire to See
The Native American woman, Pocahontas, who lived from about 1595 to 1617, had something large and kind in her that every woman can learn from and which I believe, is why her meaning for people has lasted nearly four centuries.
In a documentary about her life titled Pocahontas, Her True Story, it is said that she was “intelligent, and visionary,” that she had “vitality and brilliance,” and “large sparkling brown eyes with a sensitive and caring face.” Pocahontas was affected by the new people she met who sailed from England in 1607 to establish the first English colony in America at Jamestown. Her life, so much standing for the desire to appreciate and see, took place at a time of intense drama between seeing and grabbing in American history.
Pocahontas, whose name means full of joy and mischief, was one of about 25 children born to the great Chief Powhatan who ruled over 160 villages on the east coast—including what came to be most of Virginia. At 13, she was already a trusted advisor to her father, and from all accounts, persuaded him to “understand the settlers.” In Pocahontas The Life and The Legend, Frances Mossiker writes that Powhatan was:
Highly articulate, eloquent, with a sentimental, poetic, as well as philosophical mind. The extraordinary closeness between father and daughter was attested to by almost every reporter of the period: those who saw Powhatan saw Pocahontas at his side, in his longhouse, at his hearth, in his retinue.
I respect Pocahontas who, though she was her father’s favorite child, described as his “dearest jewel,” had a large desire to know and be kind. This is very different from girls today who are their fathers’ favorites, and feel through the importance they get this way, don’t have to be fair to anything. I know this territory personally. From what I have read, Pocahontas did not misuse her father to be unjust to others.
On the 26th day of April in 1607, three ships carrying 104 Englishmen arrived at the New World. Mossiker quotes from the diary of Sir George Percy:
We entered into the Bay of Chesupioc. There we landed and discovered a little way, fair meadows and goodly tall trees: with such fresh waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.
Yet these same people, filled with wonder at what they saw, also wanted to grab. This expedition was backed by The Virginia Company which, under the auspices of King James “was a joint stock corporation” whose sole purpose was to make profit for their investors in England. Powhatan would later say to the English, “many do inform me your coming…is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country.” He watched the settlers very carefully.
One of the Englishmen was Captain John Smith, whose courage led to the success of the Jamestown settlement. In the winter of 1607, he was taken prisoner by Powhatan’s brother, and after days of questioning about the European’s purpose in America, brought before Powhatan. Mossiker quotes Smith’s account of what happened then—which has lived in American history:
Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on [Smith], dragged him to [the stones], and thereon laid his head ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains [when] Pocahontas the King’s dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death.”
Two days later, Smith was told he was now an adopted son of Powhatan, and could return to Jamestown. This story is generally believed to be true. He wrote in a letter to Queen Anne years later:
Pocahontas, the Kings most deare and beloved daughter, being a child of 12 or 13…whose compassionate pitifull heart, of my desperate state, gave me much cause to respect her.
Pocahontas became the benefactress of Jamestown. She insisted on learning English and Smith was impressed by the speed and ease with which she learned. I believe she had what every woman can learn from—which Mr. Siegel describes: “The tendency to see…to make things part of oneself through knowing them.” She also taught Smith the Powhatan language, and he wrote:
Once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants, brought [us] so much provision, that saved many of [our] lives, that else for all this, [we] had starved with hunger…[she] was still the instrument to preserve this Colony from death, famine and utter confusion…
Tragically, John Smith was injured by gun powder while on an expedition and had to depart for England to recover. With Smith gone, negotiations for peaceful co-habitation between the Indians and the English deteriorated.
Pocahontas was captured by the English and used as a hostage for the return of settlers held by the Powhatan, but her captors were so taken by her dignity that they treated her with “great respect.” It was at this time she met and came to care for the Englishman, John Rolfe. Rolfe stood for a world so different from her own which she wanted to know. They married and had a son, and it seems their marriage made for a cessation of hostilities between the Indians and the English—it came to be known as the Peace of Pocahontas. The desire in this woman to know the world, to appreciate things rightly represents what women are hoping for in love. I speak now about what I am so fortunate to be learning about marriage.
Love Must Be for the Purpose of Knowing
A woman wants very much to care for a man, but doesn’t know she also wants “a person who will adore [her] above everything.” At the time Bennett and I were making our wedding plans, though I had changed very much, I was making a classic mistake about appreciation many brides-to-be make. I took his proposal of marriage to mean that I should now be the center of attention.
As the weeks went on even though I had outwardly scorned big weddings as excessive and vulgar, inwardly I had ambitions to be “queen for a day,” and was getting all wrapped up in what kind of dress to wear, what kind of flowers. I even went so far as to put my own money down on an engagement ring that Bennett had actually picked out for me—and while I was there—I picked out the wedding band as well, telling myself that I was sure he would like it.
When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me very kindly: “Are you being sensible as you contemplate marriage?
Meryl Nietsch. No, I am not…I’ve had a hard time making up my mind about things—the ring, the place.
Ellen Reiss. Are you looking for some glory?
Meryl Nietsch. Yes, I think so. I have wanted to be made much of.
And then Ms. Reiss asked me humorously and so importantly:
Ellen Reiss. Do you think you see Bennett Cooperman as central to this marriage?
Ms. Reiss then asked this beautiful question the basis of which I feel should be part of every wedding ceremony: “Do you feel you want to spend the rest of your life understanding Mr. Cooperman?” She continued:
Ellen Reiss. Do you think marriage is to care for the whole world more? Here is Bennett Cooperman—I didn’t know him 25 years ago, but I see him as a representative of the world. “Through you, Bennett Cooperman, I intend to care more for everything.” Is that the purpose you should have?
I said, “Yes!” And she asked me this critical question: “Do you think you are giving such a tribute to a person in marrying that you want to get glory for yourself?” “Yes,” I said. “I think that’s true.” “Weddings would be seen differently,” Ms. Reiss said, “if people felt there was glory in caring for another person.”
I have seen every month since that there is glory in caring for another person. Through knowing my husband, I care for the whole world more, am kinder to people, my mind is larger, and I am more ambitious to be fair to things.
Pocahontas, “So Distinct and Yet So Unknown”
I was very affected to read in a lecture Eli Siegel gave on the poetry of Carl Sandburg sentences about Sandburg’s poem “Cool Tombs,” which has the line:
Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw
in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder?
does she remember?…in the dust…in the cool tombs?
Said Mr. Siegel, “Pocahontas is so distinct, and yet so unknown. Her life is very tragic.” This is true. Because the Virginia Company was on the verge of bankruptcy, they brought Pocahontas to England, presented her to “the King and Court” in hopes that she and “her troop of redskins would stimulate investment to keep the colony alive.”
While in England Pocahontas was much esteemed, including by the poet Ben Jonson who said of her, “I have known a princess, and a great one.” Yet knowing, as she must have, the ugly purpose of the Virginia Company–using her as a novelty to stimulate investors so they could make more profit, to assure further exploitation of her people and land must have made her heart sick. “Sometime after that gala season ended,” Mossiker writes, “Pocahontas’s health and high spirits visibly deteriorated.” She became ill with a respiratory illness and while on a ship returning to America, Pocahontas died in her husband’s arms. Till her last day she showed a dignity and courage, and she is buried at Gravesend, England.
I was moved to read in an issue of The Right Of that Mr. Siegel saw Pocahontas as standing for something large and just in America when he wrote: “We have been asked to evoke good will from the American press by Pocahontas, Spinoza, Albert Einstein, and Rain-in-the-Face.” I am so happy that Pocahontas is getting what Mr. Siegel said she was asking for as Aesthetic Realism is becoming known across America.
Through Aesthetic Realism every person can have the proud, thrilling good time of knowing what the world is and appreciating it truly. That is what I am so grateful to say happened to me.