Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 3, and conclusion of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel; reported on by Michael Palmer

In the final part of this great class, Mr. Siegel showed that what Ibsen was dealing with as drama--the large, ethical battle between telling the truth and lying--was being fought out dramatically in America at that time, October, 1969. He read what he called "an important article" in the Washington Post, titled, "Casual Willingness to Lie, Important Lesson of [Green] Berets" by Joseph Kraft. Our country was in the midst of the brutally ugly, unjust Vietnam war, trying to impose profit economics on the Vietnamese people, who wanted to own their land in a different way. There was growing objection in America to what we were doing, and just five days after this class, on October 15, 1969, many Americans would be taking part in a huge demonstration and march in Washington and elsewhere, called "The Vietnam Moratorium." Mr. Siegel, who was passionate in his opposition to this war from its beginnings, calling it the most unethical war in American history, said of the Kraft article: "Yesterday, a victory against falsity and the lie appeared in the Washington Post--the clearest statement about the lie on which the Vietnam War is based."

About that lie, he asked:

"Is it possible for people honestly to get to a kind of government that is not the same as private enterprise as a way of life? Is it possible or does it all have to be fomented by agitators?....It's gone on and made for more pain than people realize....Korea had to do with this, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia. It has a long history based on the lie--that no person would want industry owned in common. "

He read portions of the article about the effort by U.S government officials to cover up the killing in Vietnam by a special elite force of the U-S Army, the "Green Berets." Former Ambassador Robert Komer is quoted as saying about the false report he wrote on the war: "I was asked to show progress. I wasn't asked to show the dark side."

"I use the word lie," said Mr. Siegel. "The lie is a personal thing, but occasionally it's a national means." And with historic perspective, he described the big lie that anything other than profit economics is against democracy....":

I was tremendously moved by what Mr. Siegel said as he concluded this his­toric lecture. He said: "There are possibilities of people wanting to be friendly to other people, thinking really that the skies and the waters and the land have a right to be cared for, and in a deep sense had, owned, by all the people." And he said, of Americans about to state their ethical objection: "October 15th will be a great day because it will be said (in the Moratorium), with Hedda Gabler somewhere present, that we have given too much credence to the lie."

Now in 2004, with Americans increasingly objecting as we see startling and horrendous evidence of lying in various places, the need for Aesthetic Realism and how it sees ethics is more urgent than ever.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 2 of a report of an Aesthetic Realism class by Michael Palmer

Here is Part 2, of a report of a remarkable class given by Eli Siegel October 10, 1969, part of a series Eli Siegel gave on one of the important plays in the history of drama, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler of 1890. (Part 1 is below). I'm glad to have heard this class for many reasons--but in particular, because through it I came to have a deeper respect for women.

"Lovborg," he said, is "a somewhat learned [writer]...given to impressive theory, and also given to drink and flattering women." Hedda asks Thea how her friendship with Lovborg came to be.

TE. Oh, it grew up gradually, I gained a sort of influence over him.

HG. Indeed?

TE. He gave up his old habits. Not because I asked him to, for I never dared do that. But of course he saw how repulsive they were to me; and he dropped them.

HG. Then you have reclaimed him--as the saying goes--my little Thea.

TE. So he says himself at any rate.

Commented Mr. Siegel, "The sense of a woman's vanity and the sense of how to build it up was in Lovborg." And he added, "A subtitle of this play [could be] 'The Need for Compliments.' Contrasting the ethics of Thea and Hedda, Mr. Siegel explained, "Hedda Gabler wants to be praised truly if at all. Mrs. Elvsted wants to hear the praise first and the truth later, if at all. This is the first big division of ethics--As soon as there is a disproportion between yourself and the universe, there is the tendency to lie....I don't think Mrs. Elvsted loved the truth as much as [Hedda Gabler]....If we loved the truth 40 percent as much as ourselves, we'd be doing pretty well."

He then gave examples of injustice from man to woman and woman to man in some of the great works of literature--including Greek Drama, and the operas Carmen, Aida, and Tosca. And he said that there was something new which Ibsen was after in this play--even though he himself doesn't make it clear enough. What that something is Mr. Siegel described when he said:"A woman was able to ask a man questions which enabled him to see his thoughts more clearly, express himself more clearly, present them more effectively,"--and it was not liked, not acknowledged, by the man. "It's not that Ibsen says this [directly] but we have to ask why Hedda Gabler is displeased?"

It was exciting to hear Mr. Siegel then read from a 1903 New York Times review of a Manhattan Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, in which the reviewer writes:

"Mrs. Fisk played Hedda Gabler, the presentation of a part which [another actress, Eleanora] Duse studied ten years."

Actresses haven't known how to play Hedda, Mr. Siegel pointed out, because she has not been understood, but he said: "If a part is worth studying 10 years [as Duse did] and all that [Hedda] is is ill-natured, why do you have to study for so long?" The reviewer described the play as "strangely disquieting." And what Mr. Siegel said about that statement explains the art of Ibsen and why the play, while not being understood, has been liked by audiences. He said:

"The purpose of art is always, deeply, to bring something that can be called serenity, repose, to make for quieting. But because of the honest stirring, one is supposed to feel less at odds with oneself and the world."

That "honest stirring," we saw, is what Hedda Gabler makes for. She questions the complacency of people, their motives. She is going after what is true. Said Mr. Siegel, "To see that someone felt that honesty was worth a lot should not be disquieting, it should be encouraging and very often one is encouraged by being upset a little." The reviewer, comparing Hedda to one of the most famous characters of French fiction, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, writes: "All the glitter and tinsel of romance is absent in this Emma Bovary of the North. Even the romantic excuse for Emma's downfall is missing." And Mr. Siegel showed that this comparison is unfair to Hedda Gabler. "Emma Bovary quite definitely was a lady waiting for a man on a white horse," he said, "and that is not present in Hedda Gabler." "[Hedda]," he said, "felt that the man on the white horse would be someone...willing to have himself deeply affected by a woman, not neces­sarily complimenting her or going through all the congratu­lations and all the obeisance associated with love in the Palazzo."
Check back soon for Part 3, and the conclusion of this great class
Regards, MP

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 1 of a Report of an Aesthetic Realism Class by Michael Palmer

Eli Siegel saw the Isben play Hedda Gabler in a new way--
different than how it's been previously seen

The class I'm reporting on of October 10, 1969 titled "Ethics as Possibility," was part of a series Eli Siegel gave on one of the important plays in the history of drama, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler of 1890. Mr. Siegel used a portion of the play to show how ethics has to do centrally with whether we want to tell the truth or lie. "Ethics," he explained, "is always concerned with choices--one, what to do; two, how beauti­ful will what I do look to me, to people and maybe to God."

Mr. Siegel proceeded to show what the character of Hedda Gabler truly is, and that critics in both the 19th and 20th centuries have misjudged her. "It was thought," he said, "that she was more bent on ruining the lives of people than being accurate and being just." But he said Hedda was looking for honesty from people in a way that, while it often made a person uncomfortable, was deeply good and on the side of ethics.

In a previous talk, Mr. Siegel had spoken about the deep bitterness Hedda Gabler had because a man resented the fact that she had an intellectual effect on him and his work. Eilert Lovborg is the man who, because of questions Hedda asked him and discussions they had, came to write an important book, but instead of acknowledging the effect, Lovborg prefers to see their relationship as physical and sexual. This is false and is deeply insulting to Hedda, and as the plot develops, has tragic consequences.

The action of the play begins some time after Hedda knew Lovborg. She has recently married Jorgen Tessman, a scholarly but extremely dull and insensitive man. As Act One opens, they have just returned to Christiania, Norway from their honeymoon in Italy, and they are visited by Thea Elvsted, a woman Hedda had gone to school with. Thea has left her husband, a Sheriff, and come to Christiania in search of Eilert Lovborg, who had been working as a tutor for her husband's children. At first she lies to the Tessmans, saying it was her husband who sent her to find Lovborg. But when Hedda questions her alone and asks what sort of man her husband is, Thea reveals the truth. She says:

T. Elvsted. I don't think he really cares for anyone but himself--and perhaps a little for the children.

H. Gabler. And for Eilert Lovborg, Thea?

TE. For Eilert Lovborg? What puts that into your head?

HG. Well, my dear--I should say, when he sends you after him all the way to town. And besides, you said so yourself to Tessman.

TE. Did I? Yes, I suppose I did. ( No--I may just as well make a clean breast of it at once! For it must all come out in any case.

HG. Why, my dear Thea--?

TE. Well, to make a long story short: My husband did not know that I was coming.

HG. What! Your husband didn't know it!

TE. No, of course not. For that matter he was away from home himself--he was travelling. Oh, I could bear it no longer, Hedda! I couldn't indeed--so utterly alone as I should have been in the future.
Some critics have seen Thea's leaving her husband as courageous, honest, bold, but "one of the principle things in ethics," Mr. Siegel pointed out, "is motive. It is not the deed." Thea Elvsted, he explained, was disappointed in her husband--his desire to understand her was certainly not great enough--but the main reason she left him is essentially selfish.

Check back for Part 2 of this class to be published soon

Best regards,