“What’s Best in Us—& How Can We Be True To It?” by Derek Mali

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady"
Rex Harrison in the musical “My Fair Lady”

I’m glad to publish excerpts from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar paper by my colleague Derek Mali, which include his important consideration of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.Anne Fielding

The best thing in us, Aesthetic Realism shows, is our desire to know and honestly like the world—and this very much includes other people.  Liking the world is no academic matter, it affects us every day and deter­mines how much we like ourselves.  “The question that Aesthetic Realism puts forward,” Eli Siegel said,

is this: can we really care for ourselves unless we care in some honest way for what is real?  The only way, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, to approve of oneself is con­sciously to like the way one sees the things in the world and the world itself.

Learning this changed my life dramatically. One of the big mistakes that people make—and it comes from the worst thing in us—is to assume that the finest thing about themselves is that they were born a superior person into a world populated with inferior beings who should be ever so glad we exist and happy to be managed by us. We magnan­imously try to hide this attitude. Mr. Siegel described contempt as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”  And I have seen that this disposition, which gives much seeming pleasure, is the cause not only of a person’s self-loathing, but also of all the meanness and cruelty in the world, including war.

As I grew older I came to have a large care for theater, but offstage was I ever lonely!  Though I accomp­ani­ed many girls to parties, I saw a young woman as an attractive appen­d­age on my arm, not as some­one to know and under­stand.  I felt hollow and hope­less about love. Aesthetic Realism defines love as “proud need.”  But I was not proud of needing anyone because I felt no one was good enough for me. And then I began to study in classes with Eli Siegel, and in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, he described the best thing in me and every person, and also the worst:

There are only two ways of establishing a personality: one is to say ‘I like the way I see the world and the relation of the world, therefore, to me.’  The other is the furtive finding of one fault after another in the world, and with each instance to build oneself up….The debate goes on: Should I build up myself through what the world is not, or through how I see it?  It’s a constant thing.

Through studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to see what the best thing in me was, which I needed to be true to as much as I needed food and air.  I also understood the shame I had felt for years because I hadn’t cared for things enough.

Shaw’s Pygmalion Is about This 

George Bernard Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion is the basis for the extremely successful musical of 1956 “My Fair Lady,” by Lerner and Lowe. In Greek mythology Pygmalion was a sculptor of Cyprus, and in the story by Ovid he is presented as a man who, “detesting the faults beyond measure which nature has given to women,” resolves never to marry.  He carves a sensuous ivory statue of an extremely beautiful woman, named Galatea, molding the sculpture to perfection, and promptly falls in love with it.  He then prays to Venus, the goddess of love, for a wife just like the statue, in response to which she brings the sculptured figure to life—and  Pygmalion marries her!

The idea of molding or managing a woman is attractive to many men—and the question is: does this desire arise from the best thing in us, or the worst?  “Two things that make for evil,” Mr. Siegel explained in a lecture—”are bad exertion of power or managing collision, and aloofness or separation.”  We can see these two things in the character of Henry Higgins.

Pickering, Eliza, and Henry Higgins
Pickering, Eliza, and Henry Higgins

Early in the play, Higgins, a teacher of phonetics, makes a bet with his friend and fellow-teacher, Colonel Pickering, that he will be able to teach Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, to speak “proper” English so well, he will be able to pass her off as a duchess within six months.  Higgins takes the reluctant and justifiably suspicious Eliza into his home and a period of intensive training begins.  Like myself of once, Higgins gives no importance to anyone else’s feelings.  He bullies Eliza and speaks insultingly of her background.  His housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, objects strongly to Higgins’ high handed ways, and Pickering asks:

Pickering: Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?

Higgins:  Oh no, I don’t think so.  Not any feelings that we need bother about.

In the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss wrote:

Contempt has a person see the idea that another is equal to oneself as insulting and desolating: if all those people are equal to us, then we [are] nobody!  The desire for contempt is the beginning of every manufactured inequality….

This way of seeing that Henry Higgins has, and which is very common, has made for cruelty between people and also agony within oneself. Shaw’s play, with all its charm and brightness, shows what Aesthetic Realism makes clear: when a man feels he is better than other people, he cannot be truly affected by anything, and his life is essentially an empty one.  Higgins feels that to grant feelings to Eliza would be a degra­da­tion of his precious self.  The result of his scornful attitude is a terrible relation of managing and aloofness.  His ego insists that any effect he has must be good because he is so superior, but also that no one is good enough for him to care for—so he has to be lonely in his triumph.

As I’ve said, like Higgins, I once felt that the way to take care of myself was not to be affected by things, not to let the polluted world get into the pur­i­ty of my special self.  I built a personality for myself on the fact that my mother, who could be very cool to other people, was so warm to me.  I felt, if such a discriminating person cared for me, who needed anyone else?  This came from the worst thing in me and left me feeling hollow.  And I had no idea that I was being an unkind son by encouraging my mother to feel I was the most important person in her life—more important than my father and my two brothers.  I felt she needed me as an ally in this dif­ficult world.

Henry Higgins, it seems, would like to use his mother to find other women dull and inferior—and act as if she is the most important person in his life.  Perhaps earlier she gave him some justification–but it is good to see in the play that Mrs. Higgins doesn’t just go along with this, and even though he tries to flatter her, she is refreshingly critical of her son.  She is the one who asks Henry Higgins with some severity: what is going to become of Eliza after you’ve trained her to talk like a lady, yet not made any real plans for her future?

In Act III, when Higgins comes to his mother’s house to show off  his work on Eliza’s speech to her and her guests—she says,

Mrs. Higgins: “What are you doing here today?  It is my at home day: you promised not to come.  Go home at once.”

Higgins.  I know, mother.  I came on purpose.

Mrs. Higgins.  But you mustn’t.  I’m serious, Henry, you offend all my friends; they stop coming whenever they meet you.

A little later when he says: “I’ve picked up a girl.  I don’t mean a love affair,”

Mrs. Higgins says: “What a pity!”

“Why?” he says:

Mrs. Higgins & Eliza; Henry in background
Mrs. Higgins & Eliza; Henry in background

Mrs. Higgins: [Why is it] you never fall in love with anyone under forty five?  When will you discover that there are some rather nice-looking young women about?”

Higgins:  Oh, I can’t be bothered with young women.  I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women.  Some habits lie too deep to be changed.  My idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible.

With all the breeziness of this dialogue, Higgins’s triumphant saying that “some habits lie too deep to be changed,” is really a terrific defeat for his true self.  And it is what men feel, what I once felt despairingly—you cannot really change about important things in your life.  Higgins later will say:

“I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance.  I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical.  Women upset everything.  When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you’re driving at another….So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor, and likely to remain so.”

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, we have asked men questions like: Do you want to respect the mind of a woman or see her as someone you need to protect and mold?  What really takes care of your self—being interested in people or aloof from them?  Which is better for you—to be tossed about by life or to keep yourself to yourself?  How deeply are you interested in the feelings of other people, including the woman you care for?

The Best Thing Has Power! 

A turning point in the play takes place after Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering, and Eliza return from the ambassador’s garden party, a dinner party, and the opera where Eliza has carried the day with tremendous success; she has been taken for a duchess and Higgins has won his bet.  The two men are busy congratulating themselves on their achievement, completely ignoring Eliza and all the work she has done; they give her no credit for the evening’s triumph.  She sees that they have no thought or concern about what will happen to her now that they have taught her the manners, speech, and accomplish­ments of a lady.  She is simply a used-up pawn in their game and not seen as a real, feeling person.  Distraught and intensely critical, Eliza says:

Henry and Eliza after her success

Eliza: What’s to become of me?  What’s to become of me?

Higgins:  How the devil do I know what’s to become of you?  What does it matter what becomes of you?

Eliza:  You don’t care.  I know you don’t care.  You wouldn’t care if I was dead.  I’m nothing to you…..

Eliza decides to leave, and asks Higgins what she may take with her so she will not be accused of steal­ing.  She gives him back a ring he had bought her one day in Brighton.  Higgins is surprised and hurt; he is also infuriated that Eliza means enough to him to get him angry.  He raises his hand menacingly:

Eliza:    Don’t you hit me.

Higgins:  Hit you!  You infamous creature, how dare you accuse me  of such a thing?  It is you who have hit me.  You have wounded me to the heart.

Eliza:  (thrilling with hidden joy)  I’m glad.  I’ve got a little of my own back, anyhow.

Higgins:  (with dignity in his finest professional style)  You have caused me to lose my temper: a thing that has hardly ever happened to me before.  I prefer to say nothing more tonight.  I am going to bed.

Eliza:  (pertly)  You’d better leave a note for Mrs. Pearce about the coffee; for she won’t be told by me.

Higgins: (formally)  Damn Mrs. Pearce; and damn the coffee; and damn you; and damn my own folly in having lavished hard earned knowledge and the treasure of my regard and inti­ma­cy on a heartless guttersnipe.  (He goes out with impressive decorum, and spoils it by slamming the door savagely.)

Aesthetic Realism explains that a person who has based his personality on not responding can get very angry when, in spite of himself, the world has gotten to him.  Higgins tries to attri­bute his anger to ingratitude on Eliza’s part but really he is furious that she means some­thing to him.  He has come to care for her, but he’ll be damned if he shows it. He does not know that the best thing in him is his being affected by Eliza. In a later scene he says:

Higgins (arrogantly): I can do without anybody.  I have my own soul; my own spark of divine fire.  (with sudden humility) But, I shall miss you, Eliza.  I have learnt something from your idiotic notions; I confess that humbly and gratefully.  And I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance.  I like them, rather.

Eliza:  Well, you have both of them on your gramophone and in your book of photographs.  When you feel lonely without me, you can turn the machine on.  It’s got no feelings to hurt.

Higgins:  I can’t turn your soul on.  Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and the face.  They are not you.

These words come from the best thing in Higgins.  And in the Lerner and Lowe musical, in the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins has a such a mingling of regret and pleasure, humility and pride in being deeply affected, sweetness and strength—it has truly moved people all over the world.

Aesthetic Realism has brought emotions to me and out of me that make me happy and proud to be alive. I am so fortunate to be married to Sally Ross, a high school biology teacher. I love her care for knowledge and science. As I learn from her interest in the lives of the young persons she teaches every day, she has me feel closer to people and the things of this world. Aesthetic Realism enables people consciously to make choices that are ethical and kind, choices they are proud of—and the best thing in them wins!


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