Aesthetic Realism Seminar of There Are Wives, May 1, 2008

Understanding in Marriage: What Really Interferes?

by Anne Fielding

Winnie in Beckett's play "Happy Days"
The wife, Winnie, in Beckett's play "Happy Days"
is embedded in a mound of earth.
There is a 1961 play by Samuel Beckett, titled Happy Days, revived not long ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It opens with a wife, Winnie, embedded above her waist in a mound of earth, the lower part of her body stuck, unable to move.

    Behind and below her, lying asleep, largely hidden by the mound, his face not seen, is her husband, Willie, who remains pretty much in this position throughout the play (except when his wife encourages him to retreat into his hole in the ground). He rarely speaks, and then only in short, abrupt phrases, while Winnie spends her day examining the contents of her large handbag, combing her hair, looking at herself in a hand mirror, talking out loud in a kind of rambling way, going from one thing to another—all the while making sure her husband is still there in the background, hasn’t gone away or died. That is her overriding concern. Like many wives Winnie is insistent on having her husband there in the flesh, able to hear her. “Hoo-oo. Can you hear me? I beseech you, Willie,” she calls:

just yes or no, can you hear me? Just to know that you can hear me…is all I need, just to feel you there within earshot….Ah, yes, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear. Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid.

        Meanwhile, as Beckett’s dialogue continues, we see that what is going on in her husband’s mind, what he feels about many things, what he may be worried about or hoping for hardly interests her.  Nor are her thoughts and feelings of interest to him. And so it goes for two acts, as time hangs heavy, and Winnie keeps talking, but cannot budge from her earth mound. In fact, as Act II begins, the mound has become even higher, enveloping her up to the neck where she remains until the final curtain.
Winnie, final act of "Happy Days"
        It is a strange play—part of what is called the Theatre of the Absurd. Yet I believe that in all its absurdity and strangeness, the playsatirically called Happy Daysbecause Winnie and her husband are clearly not happysays something about the ordinary non-understanding between wives and husbands everywhere.

          The play has a mingling of humor and terror, the ridiculous and the tragic. Wrote Mr. Siegel, “Aesthetic Realism says that all drama is the making one of opposites, drama from Sophocles to Beckett." And it’s permeated with opposites often so awry in marriage—closeness and remoteness, the drive to own and the drive to discard, affection and resentment.

          How many wives, like Winnie, feel stuck, encased in themselves?  Why does a woman, sitting across the breakfast table from the man who once swept her, now see him as dull and inimical? What happened to the romance? In The Right Of, titled “The Comprehension Men & Woman Desire,” Ellen Reiss explains:

On the one hand, we want to care for someone—but on the other hand we want to see that person chiefly as existing to make us comfortable, praised, glorious.  We want to be kind to someone—but we don’t want to think too deeply about what goes on within him or her.  This is the fight between contempt and respect in social life, domestic life.  It goes on not understood by the people who have it. Yet it makes for resentment and shame, for dullness and thrusting anger.  How we need to understand it, so that the desire for respect can win!

This is what women now are grateful to be learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations, like Linda Malloy of Philadelphia, whom I’ll now tell about.

1. She Was Looking for Criticism

Mrs. Malloy, a high school teacher of English and drama, told us in her first consultation, “I entered the marriage with so much hope, excitement and a will to please.  I am now very hurt to see the shrew I’ve become in his eyes.” She was asking for honest criticism, and we respected her very much. She wanted to understand why her husband, Jim, had become distant from her, was often moody and irritated.  Why didn’t he appreciate all her acts of devotion—-the lovely meals she prepared, the way she decorated their house and kept it neat, and how she daily told him over the telephone how much she loved him.Meanwhile, Jim Malloy, who had worked very hard to make a home for the two of them, like men all over America, was terrified about losing his job.  She knew this, and tried to cheer him up, but didn’t want to think deeply about what was going on within him.  She saw herself as nobly sacrificial, going out of her way to make her husband happy, but he felt, with all her showings of affection, she was essentially cold to him. In this, she was representative of wives throughout history, including a women in a funny bulletin by Mr. Siegel, titled “Lines from a Play” which goes: “I’ll die for him, but do I have to see him as real?”

          To see a person as real, Aesthetic Realism taught me, is to want to understand how the opposites that are in the world itself are in him--such as freedom and order, adventure and security, the harsh and the tender, the familiar and the mysterious.

          But Linda Malloy saw her husband—again, like many women, “chiefly as existing to make [her] comfortable, praised, glorious.” And she was angry that the praise he gave her before they married was no longer forthcoming, nor was the comfort she craved.  She cared for the drama, but was not interested in understanding the drama going on within her husband, what was affecting him, or his relation to anything but herself. As Ellen Reiss wrote in The Right Of of a woman she calls Bridget in relation to the man she’s close to:

To think, for instance, about how he sees his mother, or a friend, or a person in his office—doesn’t occur to her.  And if it did, she’d find the subject boring—also insulting, because she feels the main thing in his life, the overriding thing, should be Bridget.

Mrs. Malloy began to learn that her distress about her marriage began with how she saw the world itself-—as something to be protected from and managed—-both of which are forms of contempt. And contempt always separates the opposites in us, makes them fight. That is why she’d go back and forth between a kind of effusive praise of her husband one moment, and an icy, dismissing scorn the next. Besides, she felt she already understood him all too well. “I pinpointed Jim’s emotion,” she once told us, and “I identified what he felt.”

And she had a grim pleasure describing what she saw as his lethargy around the house. “At home,” she said, “he acts like a tree.  He grows roots and a hurricane won’t move him.” In the Beckett play, Winnie comments with sugary scorn on her husband’s lethargy and love of somnolence, saying:

Poor Willie…ah well—can’t be helped….poor Willie…[he can] sleep for ever— marvelous gift—nothing to touch it in my opinion—always said so—wish I had it.

This is wifely contempt under the pretense of admiration, and it’s infuriating and desolating to a man.  Winnie doesn’t know it’s a big reason her husband doesn’t want to talk to her, or even look at her—and she’s pained by it. “Lift up your eyes to me, Willie,” she begs at one point, “and tell me can you see me, do that for me, I’ll lean back as far as I can. No? Well, never mind.” But she does mind and feels deeply unworthy. In one of the moving moments of the play, she asks him: “Was I lovable once, Willie?” (Pause.) “Was I ever lovable?” (Pause.)

Do not misunderstand my question, I am not asking you if you loved me, we know all about that, I am asking you if you found me lovable—at one stage? (Pause) No?  

       Linda Malloy also felt she was no longer lovable to her husband, had become, as she said, “a shrew in his eyes.” When she first met him she’d been attracted by his liveliness and thoughtful manner; his care for the classical guitar, which he was studying.  He had talked passionately about the economic suffering in America—and showed feeling for people she admired very much.

       But shortly after their wedding, the qualities she had liked in him now displeased her very much, and she told us she found herself irritated by his very presence, even the sound of his voice. Did she want him to leave the house? No—just keep out of her way in a room down the hall and practice his guitar. In The Right Of, Ellen Reiss, writing of the young woman, Bridget, describes Linda Malloy’s state of mind:

She doesn’t understand why she gets agitated… unsure,…why she’s ill-natured and snappish with him even though she tries not to be.  The reason is: she deeply dislikes herself for her purpose with him—which is to own a human being and have him make her important. 

      How often has a wife wanted her spouse just close enough to maintain her ownership and command—-while dismissing him in her mind? In the Beckett play, after Winnie’s husband has emerged a bit, she wants to get rid of him, saying, “Go back into your hole, now, Willie.  Do as I say…. Go on now, that’s the man.”

        We asked Linda Malloy: “What do you think will have you like yourself in relation to your husband—trying to own him and have him do your bidding, or trying to know him, really asking: who is this man I married, and having a good time asking?”

2. The Beauty of Understanding

In The Right Of Ellen Reiss describes the job every wife has—-which the three of us are honored to be in the midst of studying ourselves and to teach other women:

To understand a human being is, Aesthetic Realism says, the most difficult, delicate job in the world, the most neglected—and the most important.

          This is the job Eli Siegel did so magnificently, delicately, and warmly with every person he spoke to, and I love him for it. He made it possible for me to have a happy and good marriage with the late Sheldon Kranz, who was an Aesthetic Realism consultant and poet—a marriage I’m still glad to be learning from. In a lesson that took place a few days before our nuptials, I told Mr. Siegel I’d gotten angry with him about something concerning the wedding arrangements. “What do you think could get you angry again with Sheldon?” Mr. Siegel asked. I replied very quickly “I feel he’s inconsiderate, doesn’t want to see what I feel, doesn’t understand me and takes me for granted.” As you see, the main thing on my mind was how my husband to be saw me—and as I talked, I flew from one complaint to another, not giving any weight to the things I respected Sheldon for—which were many.

        Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you feel flighty now or solid?” “Flighty,” I said. And I also felt stuck. Winnie, in the Beckett play feels both of these things and says if she weren’t being held so tightly by the earth: “I would simply float up into the blue…like gossamer.”

        What makes a woman feel both trapped and insubstantial, having no bearings?  Critics have seen Winnie as a woman caught in a cruel and senseless world. “That the world can be cruel,” wrote Mr. Siegel in The Right Of titled “The Place of Contempt,” “is in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.”  Meanwhile, Aesthetic Realism asks: does Winnie’s unhappiness have to do with how fairly or unfairly, deeply or superficially she sees the world, which includes her husband?

         In the lesson, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you think your sense of reality could be deeper?”  I said, “Yes, but I’m not sure what that means.”

Eli Siegel.  The sense of reality becomes a sense of volume—a desire to embrace and have to do with all of it.  The other way is to be tangential.

I did often go off on a tangent—and Mr. Siegel was teaching me, using mathematics and physics, what I most needed to know. “The desire to embrace and have to do with all of” reality is a beautiful phrase, and it’s a way of saying that I needed to use knowing my husband to know and like the world itself, which is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the purpose of marriage. “Do you believe in volume?” Mr. Siegel asked, and continued:

Eli Siegel.  Do you know that when you marry, you marry volume?  How you want to see each other is a phase of how you want to see what’s different from yourself. It’s a philosophic problem. Something you have is too great a love for the two-dimensional. Do you want to be seen three dimensionally yourself?  In marriage, there’s a certain square acceptance of the density of another.

       Mr. Siegel was teaching us how to understand each other by showing us that was had a question in common. After this lesson, I began to look at Sheldon with more depth and dimension, including what he felt as a radio operator in World War II, his interest in and knowledge of the theatre, his love for Eli Siegel’s lectures on literature and poetry—and much more. And I saw the particular Sheldon Kranz way opposites were in him—the way he was both earthy and erudite, his thoughtfulness and his hearty laugh, his everyday practicality, and his being moved to tears by a beautiful sentence or a passage in Brahms. 

       At the end of this lesson, Mr. Siegel said, “In marriage, there’s the idea that ‘If I accept the reality of you, I’ll be more real myself.’”  The meaning of this is tremendous, and I thank him in behalf of both of us, and in behalf of Linda Malloy, whose marriage began to change as her study of Aesthetic Realism continued.

3. This Is What She Learned

We gave Mrs. Malloy the assignment to write observations of her husband, which she could then look at critically.  She wrote a list of 21 and brought them to her next consultation. Here are three:

1. Jim does not take the initiative in planning activities that would be of mutual enjoyment.

2. He does not read any more because he says he “doesn’t have the time.”  His only creative outlet is his guitar which he often uses to hide behind.

3. Soon after we were married, he permitted himself to become moody and uncommunicative because he knew that I could be manipulated to hold things together while he “dropped out.

Reading these words in her own handwriting had a big effect on Mrs. Malloy—“I see the contempt!” she told us excitedly, and then, close to tears, she added, “What scorn I’ve been having—so damned superior! No wonder he couldn’t stand me!”

       We asked her if she’d like to get within her husband’s thoughts and try to see from his vantage point, and she wrote: “A Day in the Life of Jim Malloy,” which began:

At 7AM, as he gets out of bed, goes through the steps of washing and shaving, he seems to look past his face in the mirror, and becomes aware of the sunshine that promises a beautiful fall day.

       She wrote about her husband’s thoughts and feelings---as he drove to work; at his job, persons he talked to during lunch, and memories he might have mid-afternoon. In other assignments, she wrote about how her husband is related to men in history and literature— Abraham Lincoln, Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s
Jane Eyre. She also wrote: “What James Malloy Is Really Hoping for.” And we asked her to think about how five other people saw him. She did this with gusto. As soon as a wife wants to see her husband in relation to other people, and the wide, various world itself, she’s able to have that most needed thing: good will, the desire to have good things happen to her husband, to want him to be stronger, more integrated.

       Writing as their neighbor there was this sentences: “James Malloy really cares about people and stands by a person when he’s needed.”  And as one of his co-workers: “I can depend on Jim to get right to a project and do it well.  When he doesn’t know something, he asks. I like that.” In writing this, Mrs. Malloy was showing the truth what Mr. Siegel said in a lesson: “Understanding a person is already an expression of oneself, is already the equivalent of happiness.”
       Some months later, Mrs. Malloy told us:  “I’m no longer a shrew, and consequently feeling unworthy and mean.”  James Malloy, seeing his wife welcome criticism, and become much kinder, more truly understanding, wrote to us, saying he was very grateful. Soon, he began studying Aesthetic Realism himself. And Mrs. Malloy told us:

I am one of the luckiest women in the world and these have been my happiest years. I was very worried about where my marriage was going. Today, as I look at my husband, I see the joy, the happiness Aesthetic Realism makes possible. Mr. Siegel gave the world its greatest treasure, and I thank him for my life and love.

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