How Can Our Dissatisfaction Be Beautiful?—& Marlene Dietrich

By Devorah Tarrow

I’m glad to publish here an important article by my colleague Devorah Tarrow.  It was originally presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City at a public seminar. —Anne Fielding 
Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich

There was a woman in the 1940s who was famous, glamorous, and also a respected actress. She could have rested on her laurels, but she was dissatisfied, and her dissatisfaction took her to the battlefields of World War II in Europe, where she risked her own life and health to bring relief to thousands. Her name was Marlene Dietrich, and she illustrates what Aesthetic Realism says about what makes dissatisfaction wise or foolish, right or wrong.

        The distinction is tremendously important, and Aesthetic Realism explains it.  Dissatisfaction is wrong and hurtful when it arises from the desire to have contempt, from the feeling, “This world and the people in it aren’t aren’t good enough to satisfy me, and my dissatisfaction is a sign of my superiority!” Dissatisfaction is right when it arises from the desire to respect the world and people. In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss explained,

“The beautiful dissatisfaction arises from this fact, stated by Eli Siegel: ‘Man’s deepest desire, largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.’… Without knowing it, people everywhere are dissatisfied with themselves because they are not doing all they can to like the world.

        “It is a person’s welcoming of this beautiful dissatisfaction which is the source of all art; for art comes from this feeling: ‘I have not been fair enough to the world; I must see it more truly, honoringly.'”

I.   What I Learned about Dissatisfaction
In college, there were some dissatisfactions I had that were wise: I demonstrated for the Civil Rights movement and against the Vietnam War. It was clear to me that there were injustices that needed to end. But I also used my dissatisfaction with these injustices to feel superior. Even the people I marched with were subject to my scorn.  I’d think, “She’s smart, but not as cute as I am,” or, “she’s pretty but not as smart as me.”
     I had a growing dissatisfaction with myself.  I wrote in my journal, “I must relax my tension and jealousy of others.”  And: “How can I relate the worst in me with the best in me? My fear is of never finding out.  I’m tired and depressed.”
     It was in New York as attended the New School that I did find out! I learned of Aesthetic Realism and its description of contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”  Right away, I felt relieved and started to be self-critical.  Then, in a document I wrote to Eli Siegel for an Aesthetic Realism lesson, I told him that my friends said I was bossy and acted like a generalissimo! “I’ve found a certain kind of satisfaction,” I wrote, “from ignoring what I please.” In the lesson, Mr. Siegel said:
Eli Siegel As you suggest, you feel not so good about the way you’ve seen people.  There’s a certain kind of dissatisfaction—or guilt—about oneself.  The questions we have are:  Is there anger?—that’s dissatisfaction with what’s not oneself—and is there contempt?  And if we are angry and we have contempt in the wrong way would we have guilt?  If a person can in any way see that she has a wrong emotion, would she have a feeling of regret, which is akin to guilt and is guilt?
Devorah Tarrow.  That’s logical, that’s true.
ES.   The deepest dissatisfaction is that we don’t think we’re just to what’s real.  We have an obligation to everything, which means to see it as it is.
       The good effect of what I was learning was immediate! Instead of being depressed, I began to respect my dissatisfaction with myself. I wrote in my journal: “I see that desire in me to have contempt for things outside myself.  As I’ve tried to be accurate, respectful to all things more, I’ve been much happier.”
Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel"
Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel”

II. She Had a Wise Dissatisfaction

Many people think Marlene Dietrich’s career began with The Blue Angel—the 1929 film directed by Josef von Sternberg.  But she wanted to be an actress and singer from an early age, and worked hard to be good at it. There is a true dissatisfaction with ourselves which Ellen Reiss describes in a statement I love:

“The people with the most true pride, have not been satisfied with themselves, and have always hoped to respect themselves more. There are the noble, tremendously practical and lovable statements of Robert Browning, ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, /Or what’s a heaven for?,‘ and ‘What I aspired to be,/And was not, comforts me.’ Browning knew that there is a beautiful dissatisfaction with oneself that can have one truly like oneself—in fact, is necessary if one is to like oneself.  The more just we want to be, the less satisfied with ourselves we are—yet the more we authentically esteem ourselves.”

         Something like this kind of dissatisfaction was had by Marlene Dietrich, although she did not always live up to it. Born in Berlin in 1901, she was the daughter of a career military man, and began working as a chorus girl: but biographers describe her as always studying to do better. Steven Bach writes of how she learned to accompany silent films on her violin, and says, “Exactitude became second nature to Marlene and a lifelong habit….”
         She made her film debut in 1922, in So sind die Männer [That’s How Men Are]. She acted in German productions of The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Misalliance–giving her a grounding in stagecraft honed by productions of widely varying scales and styles.”  Then came The Blue Angel, after which, in 1930, she was brought to Hollywood and made Morocco with Gary Cooper, Shanghai Express, and many more films.
        “All beauty,” Eli Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”  In her films, as in the 1939 Destry Rides Again with James Stewart, she is a riveting relation of seriousness and grace, of intensity and ease, of lightness and depth that affects you.
Marlene Dietrich in "Witness for the Prosecution"
Marlene Dietrich in “Witness for the Prosecution”
        As she worked at her art, the relation of opposites became greater. In Billy Wilder’s 1957 Witness for the Prosecution, she played two roles: the beautiful but sinister Christine Vole, and an ugly Cockney woman wanting to sell letters which incriminate Christine.  In a scene with the barrister played by Charles Laughton, she shows him the letters, taunting him: “Ow, come off it! Didya bring any money?!”And showing him a terrible scar on her face, she scornfully gibes “Want to kiss me, ducky?!”  Said Elsa Lanchester, who was also in the movie: she took “lessons in Cockney from Charles…I never saw anyone work so hard.”
Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961)

In the 1959 movie Judgment at Nuremberg she plays Mrs. Bertholt, a mature, charming woman whose late husband was a Nazi military general, and in a scene with Spencer Tracy, who plays the chief judge of the trials at Nuremberg, [photo] she tries to justify what he did, protesting, “My husband was a soldier: he was brought up to do one thing—to fight in the battle and to fight well.”  I believe her acting is so fine here because of the way she puts together self and otherness—opposites at the heart of acting and of our lives: she used her enormous personal dissatisfaction, her hatred of the Nazis and what the German people did in the Second World War, to portray convincingly a woman whose way of seeing was oh, so different, a woman trying to defend so reasonably something horrible, and her performance is compellingly chilling and real.  Later, she said it was a role she was proud of, and I believe it had a powerful effect on the thousands of people who have seen this important film.

III. Women Learn This in Consultations

Susan Adler*, whose life is very different from that of Marlene Dietrich, is a vivacious woman who is proud of being a botanist, an art curator, and a wife.  She began consultations expressing dissatisfaction with both herself and the world: “I’m too soft, too affected by things. I’m dissatisfied with the news, the environment.”  At the beginning of the consultation, she told us she’d grown up in a country with fascist leaders, and we asked:
Consultants.   Do you think you came to an attitude to the world? Do you see it as a friendly place, unfriendly, or indifferent?
SA.  Oh yes—unfriendly.  When I grew up, I was afraid.
C.   So if you have an attitude to the world of fear, you were either right or wrong.  Perhaps in some ways you were correct.  But then we can USE one thing we’re afraid of to affect how we see everything.
SA.  Oh! I see.
C.   That would make us not see where we could like something, because we’re already prejudiced in behalf of protecting ourselves. And if our deepest hope is to like the world, that would make for agitation.
SA.  Yes!  Very logical.
C.   On the other hand, you’ve been interested in knowledge—you’ve felt the world was something to know. That much you liked it.  For instance, a chemical compound such as NACL is made up of sodium and chlorine. Chlorine by itself can be dangerous, but with sodium it makes a compound which is good—it’s salt. So opposites are made one in this compound?
SA.  Yes!
C.   Do you think that this shows you may be able to care for the world because it’s made in a good way?
SA.  Oh!…Yes.
C.   Aesthetic Realism shows that how the world is made is different from how it’s run. This we ask you to test honestly.
SA.  Wow. I wish I could see things that way.  What stops me?
    We respected Mrs. Adler for asking this, and explained:
C.   There’s that in the self which wants to see value in things.  But there’s something else that says “I want myself pure.” This is the desire to think the world dirties us by affecting us with its nastiness, and all its conflict.  We may dislike ourselves, be confused, but there’s something which says, “Just me by myself is fine—without all this bad stuff.”
     We asked Mrs. Adler to read point 3 of the “Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism”:
SA. “There is a disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
CWhen you said that you were too “affected by things”: Does that say you feel the world has a bad effect, and the way to take care of yourself is not to be affected by things?
SA.  Yes, that’s me!
     IV. Why Women Are Dissatisfied with Themselves in Love
Yes, women are dissatisfied with men.  But Susan Adler, Marlene Dietrich, and most women have had big dissatisfaction with ourselves in love. And the reason is explained by Ellen Reiss in an issue of The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue #1381, as she writes about a woman she calls Katie and her boyfriend, Sam:
“Katie is a lawyer.  But she uses Sam to get away from the diverse world she was born to be fair to. Without stating it, she wants to annul…co-workers, clients…demands of family and friends…, through this one man’s approval, in this one man’s arms.  She has given Sam a truly ugly job: to make her feel superior to that manifold reality not Katie. He wants the same from her. Both comply; but it’s a purpose they can’t like themselves for.  So they find themselves ill-natured and fighting, and don’t know why.
     “Real love…is the using of one person, in his or her tremendous particularity, to know and care more for the busy, puzzling, abundant, multifarious world.”
     There were men that Marlene Dietrich felt encouraged in her that hope to know and care more for the world.  For instance, in Josef von Sternberg she found a director whom she felt would tell her how she could be fairer to the art of acting.  But there was also a great pain when they began a close relation.  Though all that occurred is not clear, it can be asked: did their distress and finally their split, have to do with the fact that, with all that was fine in terms of art, they made each other “feel superior to that manifold reality not” themselves?  On and off the set, wrote a colleague, she and Von Sternberg “withdrew into an ivory tower.”  Did they despise each other for this?  And though there was adoration, Ms. Dietrich had to do with other men at the same time.  She said, “I failed him.  I was never the ideal he sought.  He was never quite satisfied.”  And the team that had made The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express, and more, separated with fury, regret, and sadness.
       From early in her life, Marlene, with her beauty and intellect, was able to conquer men.  In 1923, she had married Rudolph Seiber and they had a child, Maria, in 1924.  And though Ms. Dietrich prided herself on being liberated—I’m sure there was much pain when it came to men and sex. She wrote later: “They thought they were going to bed with Marlene Dietrich, but they woke up with just me.”  Eli Siegel said to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson:
“We want to like the world, and we also want to feel we don’t need the world and we can please ourselves.  Most often the pleasure of sex is associated with a victory over the world.  So despite the world and its seeming being against us, we had pleasure: which means there is an accomplishment of self.  And this is the thing that has to be debated: as soon as you have pleasure and you think it’s only from yourself, you cannot respect yourself.”
        Jean Gabin, the French actor and military hero, was the only man Miss Dietrich said she truly loved: “I have loved him without being selfish, without any thoughts at the back of my mind, and I tried to give happiness, even though I did not succeed always.”  As she said this, was she saying that with most men she had had some kind of thought that was selfish—though with Gabin, she “did not succeed always”?  I believe so, and I respect her self-criticism.
       Ms. Adler was also dissatisfied with herself in her marriage.  In one consultation, we said:
Consultants: The large thing we learned is that the purpose of marriage is like the purpose of art: through another person to care more for everything.  One danger for a woman is to feel she’s more sensitive than her husband, smarter, deeper.
SA.  Yes.  This disturbs me a lot.
C.   And that he is not as smart as she is.
SA. Yes!  Sometimes I say that. I feel dissatisfied and I say No, I understood better than you!
C.   There is a desire to be superior….Do you think you have that? And is it good for you?
SA.  Yes, I have that.  And no it is not!
       In the consultation I mentioned that some time ago, my husband, Jeffrey Carduner, pointed out that he’d say something, and I’d say, No, and just disagree.  Said Ms. Adler:
SA.  Oh, I have that! In the car: Go this way, go that way, I know better than you!  Sometimes I’m a boss about that.
C.      And then what happens to your desire to learn?
SA.   I think it’s discouraged.
C.       Yes, it’s completely opposed. We have these two purposes: I want to like and I want to be better than.  This fight goes on in us.  We have to know it and the more we know it the more we can combat it and make another choice.
SA.  Oh, thank you!  That is what I want.
IV. Dissatisfaction Can Be Beautiful, Wise, and Right
In his lecture on dissatisfaction, Mr. Siegel said:
“When we are dissatisfied with something, we should be satisfied with our dissatisfaction. If a person doesn’t like something and says, ‘I am proud of how I don’t like this,’ at that moment his dissatisfaction changes into satisfaction.  To be dissatisfied truly is better than to be satisfied untruly.”

Marlene Dietrich adn soldiers
Marlene Dietrich and soldiers in World War II
        There was a time of which Marlene Dietrich was very proud: She’d been against Hitler and the Nazis for years—her Hollywood home was a refuge for writers, directors, actors who escaped the Nazis’ brutality. But she was dissatisfied and wrote: “I couldn’t do much but I had to do something.”  That something was to go to Europe to entertain troops—not from afar: she went right to the front lines!  Wrote Charlotte Chandler:
“In Bari (Italy) she was taken to a hospital with pneumonia. Marlene’s hands and feet were frozen in the Ardennes….She said it was: ‘Unforgettable, and…once you’ve had frostbite, your hands and feet always remember and let you know.'”
Wrote Steven Bach:
“She spent more time entertaining at the front than any other performer, male or female….She spent the Christmas of her forty-third birthday entertaining the 99th Army near Bastogne at the center of the Battle of the Bulge….”
        I close with a song Marlene Dietrich sang that has a relation of poignancy, dissatisfaction, and something cherished: “Lili Marlene.”  It meant a lot not only to American soldiers but to Marlene Dietrich herself—a serious yet dissatisfied person who was hoping to be honestly lighthearted. The song has in it what Aesthetic Realism shows makes for beauty—it puts opposites together:  as a soldier sings of his longing for his girl, the melody falls and then rises, falls and rises. It is a moving and good song, having in it pain and pleasure, yearning and true satisfaction. It relates two parts of Dietrich’s life: originally written in German during the First World War, it was then translated into English and she sang it for thousands of GIs who loved it. Here are the beginning and ending verses:
“Outside the barracks, by the corner light
I’ll always stand and wait for you at night;
We will create a world for two
I’ll wait for you the whole night through
For you, Lili Marlene,
For you, Lili Marlene…
. . . .
Resting in a billet just behind the line
Even tho’ we’re parted your lips are close to mine,
You wait where that lantern softly gleams
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams,
My Lili of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.”

        Marlene Dietrich was proud of her war work, I believe because it expressed the dissatisfaction, and the love for the world that she wanted to make sense of.  Aesthetic Realism teaches us how we can.
Here are the first two verses of “Lili Marlene,” sung by Ms. Dietrich:

* Susan Adler is not the actual name of the woman having Aesthetic Realism consultations, which has been changed for public presentation & print.

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