Aesthetic Realism shows what love really is:
“Proud need. It means we are pleased and made stronger by another person who represents the world so richly to us, stirs us so deeply, that we feel incomplete without that person. Everyone wants to feel this about someone else but we have to understand what in ourselves is against having this large emotion. We may long for love, but something in us feels we’re more important needing no one.”
I. Our Narrow Selves Do Not Want to Need Anything
As a young boy, there were many things I felt I needed—the Lincoln logs that my brother and I used to construct buildings, my bicycle that I rode for hours, and very much, books. But as I got older, I felt increasingly that people were bothersome, too changeable, too demanding, and that the only person I could rely on and should need was myself. By my teens, while I still hung out with my friends on a Friday night, I spent a lot of time alone feeling it was only then that I could really do what I wanted, unencumbered by other people who as I told myself were “in my way” and “slowed me down.”
I arrogantly felt there was hardly any thing another person could do for me that I couldn’t do better myself. The idea of asking someone else’s opinion I saw as a waste of time. Once, when a gas station attendant offered directions for a trip I was taking, I cut him off, saying curtly, “I know how to get there”–even though, as it turned out, my route took much longer. And as I sat in a science class at school, I felt, “Why do I need to listen to Mr. Goldberg; I can read the textbook and learn this stuff myself”–despite the fact that more than once I found I couldn’t.
But with all my smug self-reliance, and while it was the last thing I would ever admit, I was worried that I would never have grand, sweeping feelings about another person, and that I would spend my life pretty much alone. I had no idea that even as I thought there was something very wrong with how little people meant to me, I was also having a victory in thinking no one mattered more to me than myself.
In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel explained a mistake I was making: “When we see the outside world wanting to assist us, we don’t like it even though the direction we’ve adopted for ourselves may not be the best.”
And he put into words what he called my “very unwise motto” which he said was shared by many people: “Everything that happens to me must be done by myself; I won’t let anything else affect me well.”
I thank Mr. Siegel for criticizing the hurtful track I was on. What I learned enabled me to change a great deal on the subject of needing something outside myself. Where I once couldn’t be in a conversation without very quickly getting impatient and annoyed, I began listening to people with pleasure. And instead of defending myself vociferously against anyone who questioned practically anything about me, I feel proud to need other people’s perceptions of me to be the person I want to be. This has made it possible for me to really have hope about love.
II. Self-Love vs. True Care for Another
Right next to the ugly feeling in a man that he doesn’t need anything outside himself is the assumption that if we do have to do with another person, we’re bestowing a great favor. While I had changed in a big way in how I saw the world and people, I’m sorry to say I still clung to this egotistical attitude which a friend once described so aptly. He said that I felt that if I granted a woman my company, she should rest easy and be deeply pleased because one of the large hopes for her life had been met. At the time, I was so conceited I really didn’t think I was wrong! Despite the fact that a number of women showed their displeasure with my self-inflated notions, when they did, I was shocked and hurt, feeling I was the one misseen and maltreated.
In a class, as I spoke dolefully about a breakup with a woman, Miss Reiss asked me: “Would you rather feel sad or change something central in yourself: the belief that you have the right to feel superior, to have contempt?”
SW: I’m not sure.
ER: Do you think there is something you feel you’re entitled to, and it doesn’t go over with the ladies and it doesn’t go over with yourself?
I began to do a study—both cultural and personal—about instances of self-love, and how it hurts one, including things I saw in myself. Here are two of the many points I wrote:
As I wore my new raincoat today, I had this picture of myself dashing down the street with everyone turning to look at me and thinking to themselves or commenting to others “What a tall, good-looking, well-dressed man he is!” This hurt me because it is a superficial, narrow way of seeing people: people want to like the whole world, be interested in all of it. (AND)
After leaving the museum today, what was most memorable were not the beautiful paintings by artists such as Degas and Courbet but by what I thought were my very keen observations of them. I hurt myself because I could have had more feeling for these works but instead chose to use some of the great art of the world to love myself which is clearly not their purpose.
This was an eye-opener; it helped to change the direction of my life. I saw that the way I used many things to aggrandize myself was really so small, even laughable and that there was something much larger I wanted.
III. A Film of the 1990’s
I now discuss aspects of the 1993 movie The Remains of the Day, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. It shows something of how far the narrow self of a man will go in protecting and treasuring his superiority to the world: it makes him hard, unfeeling and ruins any chance for true love. Meanwhile, I feel this film is not wholly honest because the main character, James Stevens, played by Anthony Hopkins, is made to seem poignant, even pathetic, not as essentially cold and unkind.
Set in England in the late 1930’s as Hitler is gaining power in Europe, Mr. Stevens is the chief butler in charge of a large staff on the estate of Lord Darlington. We see right away that Stevens uses his job–the managing of Darlington Manor down to the smallest detail–for self-importance and snobbishness. While he is seemingly ever so polite, he runs the house with an iron hand, and maintains a steely distance between himself and his staff, keeping his emotions untouched and hidden. Stevens has what is described by Miss Reiss in The Right Of as the “contemptuous determination” to feel that:
No one is good enough to stir me completely–the only one who should be able to affect me is me!
One of the persons Mr. Stevens feels this about is Miss Kenton, the lively and competent head housekeeper, portrayed by Emma Thompson, whom he hires at the outset of the film. One day, she brings flowers to cheer up his somber office. But instead of welcoming her friendly encouragement, Stevens rebuffs her, saying, “I regard this room as my private place of work and I prefer to keep distractions to a minimum.” Then he proceeds to find fault about some minor jobs she hasn’t done to his exacting standards.
And a few scenes later, Miss Kenton tries to tell Stevens that his elderly father, a butler on the staff, is beginning to have difficulty performing his duties, but Stevens refuses to listen. When she kindly insists they speak, Stevens dismisses her by saying, “I’m afraid you can’t talk to me this way, Miss Kenton. Perhaps you’ll allow me to go about my business.” Soon afterwards, the senior Stevens, carrying a tray of china, trips in front of Darlington and his guests, falls down and is knocked unconscious.
IV. Personal Unkindness: International Cruelty
One of the things this film points to is something Aesthetic Realism explains: the cold way a man can see a woman which makes love impossible and the horrors one nation can inflict upon another arise from a similar cause.
Mr. Siegel defined fascism as the “unwillingness to understand as power.” And while it has certainly been seen that governments have been fascist, it hasn’t been seen as clearly that the determination not to see what another person feels has been very much in social life too. It is what impels Stevens, has him be quietly brutal. He makes it clear that none of the servants should show any feeling, especially for each other. And while he is willing to spend evenings with Miss Kenton discussing the business of the manor, when she tries to talk about what she feels, Stevens becomes even more determinedly unyielding. At one point, even as she weeps, he acts as if he doesn’t notice and reminds her of figurines she hasn’t dusted. Ellen Reiss explains in The Right Of:
“People have hoped for love, but they haven’t seen they also hope for incomplete, tepid, dull feeling–because such feeling places a regal crown on one’s own self-adoring forehead.”
While Stevens’s coldness is vividly ugly, no man should feel he’s above it. At a time I was unkind to a woman and unwilling to see what she felt, Miss Reiss asked me: “Would you like to have love that is not tremendous but where you are the master? Would you rather have tyranny than love?”
I’m sorry to say my answer was yes.
And it is tyranny over millions of people that is desired by the persons Stevens glorifies and serves so obsequiously. The fictional Lord Darlington represents many actual English noblemen who were Nazi sympathizers, very willing to betray their country by trying to have their government make a secret deal to appease Germany. But because Stevens gets so much contemptuous importance as Lord Darlington’s head butler, he makes himself oblivious to the despicable way people are spoken about by Darlington’s aristocratic guests at the sumptuous dinners he oversees; Stevens is more concerned with the proper placement of the silver and crystal.
For instance, one guest says: “One has to regard the laws of the fascists as [to the Jews, Gypsies and Negroes] as a much overdue sanitary measure…. Here, we [have] prisons, over there, they [have] concentration camps. What’s the difference?”
And another comments: “The Nazis got rid of all that trade union rubbish. Believe me, no workers strike in Germany and everyone’s kept in line.”
Despite these and other chilling statements he overhears, later that evening Stevens says to a fellow butler: “In my philosophy, a man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be in service to his employer. Of course, this assumes one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank or wealth, but in moral stature.”
Quite taken aback, the other butler says: “In your opinion, what’s going on up there has moral stature, does it? I’ve heard some very fishy things, Mr. Stevens, very fishy!”
Stevens: “I hear nothing. To listen to the gentlemen’s conversations would distract me from my work.”
Many men might think that Stevens‘ refusal to see what is going on right before his eyes is very foreign, but every man needs to ask: “How much does it really matter to me that there are many people in this world who are suffering? Is there any relation between my not being too interested in the feelings of a terrified child in Iraq, or an unemployed worker in the Midwest, and how I see a girlfriend or wife? And while I may think through coldness I’m taking care of myself, might I be harming myself – including hurting tremendously the possibilities of love in my life?”
Aesthetic Realism says definitely if we are not interested in knowing the feelings of people as such, it greatly impedes us from knowing and caring for one person.
At a certain point, Darlington tells Stevens that two German Jewish servant girls must be fired because their dark features are offensive to his guests. For once, we see a flicker of real feeling cross Stevens’ face as he offers a mild protest. However, as soon as Darlington shows displeasure, Stevens quickly acquiesces. When he informs Miss Kenton, she expresses horror at Darlington’s decision and shows she despises Stevens for his casual manner in telling it.
She says: “I’m amazed that you can stand there as if you were discussing orders from the larder. If those girls have no work, they could be sent back to Germany. If you dismiss them, it will be wrong, a sin as much as there ever was one!”
Stevens coolly replies: “There are many things that you and I don’t understand in the world today whereas his Lordship understands fully, including the nature of Jewry.”
I believe a very valuable thing about The Remains of the Day is that it illustrates what Aesthetic Realism explains: there is a beautiful, strict justice about love. If we do not want to be full out against evil and ugliness, including in ourselves, we won’t be able to have the love we’re hoping for.
And the converse is also true: It is only when we want to use all of ourselves passionately, happily on behalf of what is fair and kind, will we be closer to caring deeply for another. That is what is shown in Richard Lovelace’s great 17th century English poem: “To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars.”
Ellen Reiss, teacher of the class “The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry”, said of it: “There is hardly a more important poem on love. [because it says:] Unless you want to fight for justice, you’re unequipped to love a person.”
In it, a man tells Lucasta, a woman he is close to, that he must leave her to go into battle. But he says she shouldn’t be angry with him because through defeating injustice, he will love her more. Here is the poem with its famous two last lines:
Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.
Because Aesthetic Realism understands and criticizes the narrow self in all of us that wants to care only for ourselves and have small, diluted feeling for everything else, it gloriously makes possible the real, passionate, complete love every person is hoping for.