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,