Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Aesthetic Realism seminar:
What's the Big Thing Women Need
to Know about Power?,
part 2

In an early class I attended with Mr. Siegel, after another relationship I'd had with a man ended, he asked me:  "Do you believe your largest purpose is to be admired by a man you admire?"
LA.  Yes.

ES.  Is that really your largest purpose?  Most girls feel if they meet the right man, everything will be alright.  [Did] you feel that?

LA.   Yes.

ES.  [Did you feel] you could solve all your problems through sex[?]  A woman can feel most of her life is marking time until a man really pays homage to her.

LA.  I felt that.

ES.  ...You're finding out that life is a larger word than sex.  You feel you had a solution.  [And he asked,] You have a hard time liking anything don't you?"

"Yes" I replied.  And he composed this poem for me, which I love for its logic and tenderness.

     Question for Clorinda
          Can you like anything that's real,
          For instance a man,
          Unless you like
          Reality as such
A Novel of the 19th Century Can Have
Us See the Power We Truly Want
Emma, by the important English author Jane Austen, published in 1815, is a novel that can teach us usefully about our subject.  Emma is a beautiful young English woman living in Hartfield, who takes care of her aging and doting father, and spends much of her time thinking about whom should be married to whom, and how she can bring the match about.  In an essay printed in The Right Of  Mr. Siegel explained:
"Every person is troubled by the drive towards good power and the simultaneous drive towards bad power.  The way that good power can be distinguished is through asking the question: 'If this desire of mine was to be successful, and if I were to have power over this person, would the world look better and would the person himself or herself be stronger?'  Any power that a human being has over another that doesn't make the per- son it is exerted on stronger, and the world in which the power takes place look more beautiful, is bad power."
     Early we see Emma going after a bad kind of power.   Her governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr. Weston, and Emma brags to her father and Mr. Knightley, a family friend, about her "great" success, "I made the match myself...and proved in the right,...may comfort me for anything."  Emma is acting as if she were all powerful, if not for her, they would never have gotten married.  "The real evils indeed of Emma's situation" Miss Austen writes,
"were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.  The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her."
These sentences are critical, satiric even, but kind, because Jane Austen sees the power of Emma having "too much her own way," as being a disadvantage, even as Emma herself doesn't, I didn't either, and most women don't.  I learned this important fact: that if you go after having your way through managing others, it is a great disadvantage, because in making another person an adjunct to yourself, you rob yourself of having any real feeling about that person, and you end up feeling empty and cold.

     Mr. Knightley does not flatter Emma Woodhouse, he questions her, saying:

I do not understand what you mean by "success".... 'Success supposes endeavour....Where is your merit?-- what are you proud of?--you made a lucky guess; and that is all....
Emma, though, instead of welcoming and thinking about his questions, tries to make him unsure, and defends herself, saying:
"I thought you cleverer--...a lucky guess is never merely luck.  There is always some talent in it.  And as to my poor word 'success,' which you quarrel with,...If I had not promoted Mr. Weston's visits here, and given many little encouragements, might not have come to anything after all."
Undaunted by Emma's arrogance, Mr. Knightley shows respect for the married couple, saying to her:
"A straightforward, open-hearted man like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to manage their own concerns.  You are more likely to have done harm to yourself, than good to them, by interference."
Mr. Knightley is a real friend to Emma--he wants her to be exact.  In a class, Mr. Siegel once said to me, "The whole purpose of life is to be exact about value....Aesthetic Realism says if you aren't exact, you're rooking yourself."

     Emma--to use the current phrase--has her own agenda.  When she meets a pretty 17-year old woman, Harriet Smith, whose parentage is unknown, and had just parted from under the care of the Martin family, she thinks, Jane Austen writes:

"The [Martins]...must be coarse and unpolished....She would...improve [Harriet];...and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners."
Emma's thoughts are snobbish--who Harriet really is, she has no idea and really no interest in.  As Harriet tells Emma of her high regard and care for Robert Martin, Emma wants her own way and encourages Harriet to scorn her "degrading" associations--she has a much better match in mind for her, a "real gentleman," a Mr. Elton, "remarkably handsome...with most agreeable manners." 

     At a time I was seeing a certain man--like Emma as to Harriet--I was after having my way, my pleasure, and I didn't think about whether I was weakening or strengthening him.  I felt driven, but I also felt ashamed.  Mr. Siegel asked me in a class: "You can participate in something while not believing in it--isn't that a description of your life Miss Abel?"  It was.  And he asked "Do you want to have a good effect on people or do you want to have your way?  That is the big question of people."  These questions began to have me see what kind of power I wanted most.

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