Thursday, November 10, 2005

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Final post: Aesthetic Realism Taught Me about What Interferes with Happiness

This is the conclusion of the paper I've been posting here, which discusses "The Necklace," by Guy de Maupassant, with its famous ironic ending, and what Aesthetic Realism taught me about the interference in oneself to real happiness

Maupassant describes in vivid prose the change that takes place in Mme. Loisel as she now, because of her own conceit, must live “the horrible existence of the needy.”

"She took her part...with heroism. That dreadful debt must be paid. She would pay it....She came to know what heavy housework meant and the odious cares of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, using her rosy nails on the greasy pots and pans. She washed the dirty linen...; she carried the slops down to the street every morning, and carried up the water, stopping for breath at every landing. And, dressed like a woman of the people, she went to the fruiterer, the grocer, the butcher, her basket on her arm, bargaining, insulted, defending her miserable money sou by sou.

"After 10 years, they paid off everything. And though Mme. Loisel now looked old, “with frowsy hair, skirts askew, and red hands,” we can see that her idea of what would make her important and happy has not essentially changed.
Sometimes,...she sat down near the window, and she thought of that gay evening of long ago, of that ball where she had been so beautiful and so feted.

"One day while taking a walk, she sees Mme. Forestier and decides to tell her the truth about the necklace. She greets her old friend, who doesn’t recognize her and is shocked to see how she’s changed.

'Yes, I have had days hard enough, since I have seen you, days wretched enough—and that because of you!'
'Of me! How so?'
'Do you remember that diamond necklace which you lent me to wear at the ministerial ball?'
'Yes. Well?'
'Well, I lost it.'
'What do you mean? You brought it back.'
'I brought you back another just like it. And for this we have been ten years paying. You can understand that it was not easy for us, us who had nothing. At last it is ended, and I am very glad.'"

Mme. Loisel’s pride here is of two kinds, representing two ideas of what will make her happy: one, the justice of being able to meet an obligation justly; and two, being able to be superior—here, by feeling she’d successfully fooled Mme. Forestier. But had she?

"Mme. Forestier had stopped.
'You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?'
'Yes. You never noticed it, then! They were very like.'
And she smiled with a joy which was proud and naive at once.
Mme. Forestier, strongly moved, took her two hands.
'Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!'"

The deep theme of this story, said Ms. Reiss, is: “If we go after substitutes for liking the world through being fair to it as we see it, are we asking for disaster for ourselves?”

The great news is: People can learn to have the happiness that comes from seeing the world truly and liking it. “In happiness,” said Mr. Siegel,
there is the wonderful and the ordinary. Every person has to feel that his feet are on the ground if he is to be happy; every person has to feel there is something wonderful about the ground and it isn’t just ground....Aesthetic Realism does think that happiness is the most wonderful thing in the world, and yet it is a study.

That study can enable women and men everywhere to have real, lasting happiness!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

What Happiness Is and Isn't--Explained by Aesthetic Realism (4th installment)

And here's the next section of this paper.

“The idea that one’s ability to like the world depends on being made supreme in it is here,” said Ellen Reiss, and she asked, “What is it a child coming into this world is born for? Is it to see meaning in the world, or to dazzle the world?” Mme. Loisel thinks it’s the second, and so she agrees when her husband says she might ask to borrow some jewels from her rich friend, Mme. Forestier, whom she rarely visited “because she suffered so much” by the contrast between their situations. Generously, her friend shows her a box full of gold, pearls and precious stones, saying, “Choose, my dear.” Yet, despite their beauty, she still asked, “Haven't you any more?”

All of a sudden she discovered, in a black satin box, a superb necklace of diamonds, and her heart began to beat with an immoderate desire. Her hands trembled as she took it. She fastened it around her throat, outside her high-necked dress, and remained lost in ecstasy at the sight of herself.
Then she asked, hesitating, filled with anguish:
“Can you lend me that, only that?”

And she does. Mme. Loisel has now within her grasp what she thinks will make her happy. At the ball, she dazzles many men.

She danced with intoxication, with passion, made drunk by pleasure, forgetting all, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage, of all this admiration, of all these awakened desires, and of that sense of complete victory which is so sweet to woman's heart.

This is a description of a certain notion of happiness. Mr. Siegel writes:
The feeling of being agog in an honest fashion belongs to happiness. There is a desire to be gloriously dizzy and exaltingly abandoned. But not going to be got by shortcuts....There is no porch climbing to happiness.” [TRO 1011]

And so, as they leave the ball at 4 a.m. and return home, she feels “All was ended for her. And as to him, he reflected that he must be at the Ministry at ten o'clock.” Inside their apartment,

She removed the wraps, which covered her shoulders, before the glass, so as once more to see herself in all her glory. But suddenly she uttered a cry. She had no longer the necklace around her neck!
Her husband, already half undressed, demanded:
“What is the matter with you?”
She turned madly toward him:
“I have—I have—I've lost Mme. Forestier's necklace.”

Her husband goes back over their route, trying to find it.
He went to Police Headquarters, to the newspaper offices, to offer a reward; he went to the cab companies—everywhere, in fact, whither he was urged by the least suspicion of hope.
She waited all day, in the same condition of mad fear before this terrible calamity.
Loisel returned at night with a hollow, pale face; he had discovered nothing.

Rather than admit they have lost the necklace, they decide they must replace it, no matter how much it costs—hoping Mme. Forestier won’t notice.
They went from jeweler to jeweler, searching for a necklace like the other,...sick both of them with chagrin and with anguish. [At last] they found...a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly like the one they looked for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They could have it for thirty-six.

Spending all their savings, entering into “ruinous obliga¬tions,” borrowing from usurers. M. Loisel “compromised all the rest of his life” to pay for this diamond necklace. To their relief, Mme. Forestier doesn’t notice the substitution.

Aesthetic Realism and Why People Don't ONLY Want to Be Happy--3rd installment

What Aesthetic Realism can teach people about happiness is something I hope everyone can learn about. Who, after all, doesn't want to be happy? So--here's the next part of the paper that I began posting last week. In it, I discuss the protagonist of one of the best known short stories in world literature: Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," which I've studied with many of my high school classes. Through Aesthetic Realism, this lady, Mathilde Loisel, can teach us something important about ourselves.

What Did She Think Would Make Her Happy?

I’ll speak now about the main character in one of the most famous short stories ever written, read by millions of people—including high school students like those I teach: “The Necklace,” by Guy De Maupassant. As I do, I’ll be quoting from an Aesthetic Realism class in which Ellen Reiss discussed this story, showing it has centrally to do with the matter of what we think will make us happy—and how we also arrange not to be. The story begins:

She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, wedded by any rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a little clerk at the Ministry of Public Instruction.

What this woman, Mathilde Loisel, feels is related to what I once felt: doomed to be unhappy because she was born, as she saw it, into the wrong family, and that “she had really fallen from her proper station.” Yet right away, we also have the thing that will make us happy: the aesthetic way of dealing with the world, which is in the style of Guy De Maupassant. There is in the sound of these opening sentences, Ms. Reiss explained, “a sweet ripplingness,” and then “a let-down.” His description of the ordinariness, even dullness, of French middle-class life has drama. For example:

She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her dwelling, from the wretched look of the walls, from the worn-out chairs, from the ugliness of the curtains. All those things, of which another woman of her rank would never even have been conscious, tortured her and made her angry....She thought of...silent antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry, lit by tall bronze candelabra,...of...delicate furniture carrying priceless curiosities....She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for that.

Said Ms. Reiss,”Everyone is something like this lady. We have a notion: If I had this [or that], I would be pleased....There’s a desire to be happy through owning the world.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a nice home, or wanting to improve one’s situation in life—yet we should ask: Why do we want these? Is it to feel we’re getting along well with things, with reality, or to feel we should be in a position to look down on the lesser, more common¬place beings of this world? Mme. Loisel feels the latter, and we see in this passage that she feels humiliated in not having what she thinks she needs to be happy:

When she sat down to dinner, before the round table covered with a tablecloth three days old, opposite her husband, who uncovered the soup tureen and declared with an enchanted air, “Ah, the good pot-au-feu! I don't know anything better than that,” she thought...of delicious dishes served on marvelous plates, and of the whispered gallantries which you listen to with a sphinx-like smile, while you are eating the pink flesh of a trout or the wings of a quail.

In her picture of what will make her happy, Mme. Loisel is arranging to be unhappy. Here, she’s like many people: she cannot take pleasure in ordinary things, like good home-cooked food, and sees her husband as a fool for doing so; she cannot see everyday reality as having wonder. Asked Ms. Reiss,

Are we interested in seeing what the world is? Is that going to make us happy? Or is having it present us with certain things, give us the goodies...going to make us happy? What is it that will hold up?

And she explained how the art of Maupassant is a criticism of how Mme. Loisel sees: “The style here is a relation of richness and a certain bluntness. There’s terrific economy.” Yet, she explained, in this rather short story, “you feel there’s abundance.”

One evening, Mme. Loisel’s husband comes home with something he thinks will make her happy: an invitation to a ball at the palace of the Ministry of Public Instruction. Yet,

Instead of being delighted,...she threw the invitation on the table with disdain, murmuring:
“What do you want me to do with that?”
“But, my dear, I thought you would be glad. You never go out, and this is such a fine opportunity. I had awful trouble to get it. Everyone wants to go; it is very select, and they are not giving many invitations to clerks. The whole official world will be there.”
She looked at him with an irritated eye, and she said, impatiently:
“And what do you want me to put on my back?”

Flustered at seeing her burst into tears, he asks: “What’s the matter?”

By a violent effort, she had conquered her grief, and she replied, with a calm voice, while she wiped her wet cheeks:
“Nothing. Only I have no dress, and therefore I can't go to this ball. Give your card to some colleague whose wife is better equipped than I.”

Mme. Loisel is quite mean as she makes the mistake of many wives—blaming a husband for her unhappiness and punishing him. Cowed by her, he agrees that she should have a new dress, though it will cost all that he has saved for another purpose. But she’s still miserable: she has no jewels. Her husband suggests she wear flowers: “It's very stylish at this time of the year. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses.” “She was not convinced. ‘No; there's nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich.’”