Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Aesthetic Realism seminar:
The Fight between Boredom
and Awareness in a Woman's Mind, part 3

     In his lecture Mind and Kindness Mr. Siegel said:

Deep in the meaning of the word kind is a feeling that through being born there is a relation to everything which is also born or existing….I mean by kind, a proper awareness of all things that are in any way like you…(And he asked:) Can a person take care of himself by being inadequately aware of what is like himself?
Frances Perkins felt in a big way, that she couldn't.

          After graduating from Mount Holyoke and despite her family’s feeling she should settle down and find a suitable husband, she began to work with Jane Addams in Hull House in Chicago.  This was 1906, and labor unions, which her father had denounced as the work of the devil, were not yet the force they would become.  Settlement houses seemed able to offer more di-rect help to families who were hungry, needed medical assist-ance, persons who had been left destitute by the effect of profit economics.

          When she met people face to face after having trudged through back alleys, visited sweatshops and slaughterhouses, climbed tenement stairs, instead of feeling cynical Francis Perkins was inspired.  She said, "I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty….Definitely the circumstances…of the people of my generation was my business, and I ought to do something about it." In a class in 1976, Mr. Siegel spoke about the meaning of obligation.  "Do you think you owe anything to people?" he asked me. "Yes," I said.  "I think I owe a great deal."

ES.  If you were on the subway and saw a woman ill, would you give her a seat?

LA.  Yes....

ES.  If you can make anything stronger, would you want to do it?  If there were a smudge on the window would you want to brush it away?

LA.  Yes.  And he explained,

 "Obligation comes from the desire to have the world stronger and better….Good will is a terrific obligation, present with every beat of one's heart.  The depth, greatness, need of good will is one of the most beautiful things in the world.... Every person has to see obligation as expressing oneself while at the same time taking care of oneself."

3. She Saw Her Obligation to People As Expressing Herself

In his lecture, Mr. Siegel said, "Awareness consists of two things: concentration and comprehensiveness."

          Frances Perkins was visiting a friend in Washington Square, one afternoon in 1911, when the Triangle Shirt-waist Factory on Greene Street went up in flames.  She watched, horrified and helpless, as young screaming girls with hair and clothes on fire, frantic to escape, leapt from windows to their death.  Bill Severn writes:

Most of the girls…recently had been hired to replace other girls fired for joining a union and striking for better working conditions….Exit doors were locked because the company did not want the girls wandering from floor to floor.
146 young women died. Frances Perkins wrote, "It was a torch that lighted up the whole industrial scene," and she set out to make herself an expert on factory safety.  She met with architects, engineers, chemists, whom she said, "sat with me, hour after hour,…teaching me the rudiments of…what makes a safe factory." She had a beautiful, fierce concentration and she also wanted to be comprehensive--to know the laws that needed to be passed. 

          In 1912, as the director The New York State Factory Commission, with the support of Senate President Robert Wagner and Assembly leader Al Smith, she inspected factories all over the state. When she recommended broad new fire safety legislation, real estate operators "protested such a law would limit their income" and "that there was no need for it, since the… workers who died each year by fire were only a tiny fraction."

          This hideously contemptuous way of mind, I've learned, is the basis of the profit motive.  In her article "Ethics—the Only Answer for the Economy!" Ellen Reiss explained:  "Once you are after profit, you can't be too interested in what people deserve, what they feel: it will cramp your ability to make money from them." Despite the protestations then, within a year, fire bills and other safety regulations were enacted into laws.

4. Private and Public, One Person and Many

In a lovely poem Eli Siegel wrote of Henry James, that James felt “The awareness of another possible awareness / Is the kindest deed ever.”  This is what we want in love, as Frances Perkins did.

          She was past thirty when, in 1913 she and Paul Wilson were married. He was called a "progressive republican," who became a financial advisor to New York's Mayor John Mitchel. She had written to him of the happiness they would have “as we summon the courage to really know each other …[to] admit each other to the inner places.” She had gone back and forth as to marriage for years, and "attempting to explain her attitude" then, she said: "I know Paul Wilson well. I like him…and I might as well marry and get it off my mind."  Was there a desire in her not to be aware—to take for granted she knew someone before she really did?  The circumstances around the wedding were kept secret--no one was invited, and they both agreed that their public and private lives should "be kept entirely apart." Yet, how could Ms. Perkins publicly attack the city's policy on fire prevention while her husband was the mayor's Assistant Secretary?  There was conflict.  Paul Wilson supported his wife's work early on, but then he became more politically conservative.

          Five years after they married he became ill, "in a way," George Martin writes "that perhaps neither he nor his wife ever clearly understood."  "He suffered from an up and down illness," Frances Perkins said later.  Martin wrote that Miss Perkins felt a sense of guilt, and seemed 'ashamed' of him and his illness" which was of "alternate moods of elation and depression."  The public never knew of the problems that concerned her privately. Most of their married life until his death in 1952, her husband spent in mental institutions.  It seems she didn't speak of him or his illness even to her closest friends.  Can a husband feel, "This woman is not aware of what is going on in me—she is not interest- ed?"  Was there the same impulsion, comprehensive and deep, to know her husband as she tried to know, for instance, all the conditions in a factory that affect people working a 12-hour day?  I think Frances Perkins did not go after knowing her husband deeply, including "the inner places" she had spoken of, and this must have made her ashamed. 

5. It Is Delightful to Be Aware

When Michael Palmer and I first talked over dinner, I was affected by his lively interest in things—history, sports, and current events--and by his desire to know me.  We spoke about ways we both wanted to change and be better people, and I liked his seriousness, and also his sense of humor.  As our care for each other grew, the subject of marriage came up, and we decided to live together.  But a few months after I moved in, things were not so lively in our apartment.  I had the feeling I'd gotten my man, but I didn't feel good.  In a class, I mentioned that I was more agog before I moved in.  "How did this happen?” Ellen Reiss asked me, "He gave you to eat of the lotus?  Do you think" she continued "when you know a man it's lullaby time?"  That made me think of a reverie I'd had of being a sleeping princess, with an adoring man awakening me with a kiss.  Then she asked, "Are you enough interested in Michael Palmer liking himself?”  I hadn't been. "The thing that is going to stop this," Ellen Reiss explained, "is good will—[where] you're very interested in where does he hold himself up,

also, Where is he proud of himself? and Where can [you] encourage that?… When you wanted to be with Mr. Palmer you were saying "I owe it to this person to do all I can to have him like himself."…Do you think Michael Palmer's mind is worthy material for you to get excited about—something you should be interested in, concerned about, and educated by all the time?
Yes! And I thank and love her for these questions, which made for greater awareness and happiness.  Recently Michael and I celebrated the anniversary of our marriage, which has more meaning, and true romance with each year.  Mr. Siegel wrote, "We should be aware because it is delightful to be aware."  I'm grateful to feel this. 

          Aesthetic Realism shows that the thing most needed for a marriage to be strong is what will make a nation strong: good will, "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful."  Frances Perkins worked to have Americans stronger. Frances Perkins-and-FDR In 1933 as Secretary of Labor and at the height of the Depression, she moved with passion and speed to formulate landmark legislation to get the Nation out of economic collapse.  She said, "a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life."  This was the feeling that impelled her in building a permanent social security system.

          Today, what Frances Perkins worked toward and hoped for can be realized for people personally and nationally, when this important question asked by Eli Siegel is known and studied, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”  When it is, it will make for the ethical awareness so urgently needed, and will have people kind and fair to one another.

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