How Deeply Should a Woman Be Affected by the World? —with a consideration of Anna Magnani

By Marcia Rackow

Anna Magnani
Anna Magnani

I’m glad to print here excerpts from an important seminar paper given by my colleague, Marcia Rackow. —Anne Fielding

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a woman’s happiness and self-respect depend on how much she wants to be affected by things outside of her. Our greatest hope, I learned, is to know and like this world we were born into. All art embodies that hope—to be ourselves through being fair to what is not ourselves. We can learn how through this historic principle stated by Eli Siegel:

 “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

There is also a hope in us to lessen what is different from ourselves as a means of feeling we are important and superior. This spurious hope is contempt, and it makes a woman go after being less affected by what she meets—want to dismiss, fight, hide from the world and people.

These two hopes were steep in my life. As a child I loved going to school and learning to draw and paint. But I also liked to be in my room alone where I closed the door, so no one would bother me. When I was older, I took my time returning a friend’s phone call, and often didn’t answer letters at all. By the time I was 31, though I was well traveled and knew many people, I was painfully unsure of myself. I had no idea this unsureness arose from wanting to be less affected by people and things, which was also completely opposed to my hope to be an artist. Then, in the first Aesthetic Realism class I had the honor to attend, Mr. Siegel asked me:

“Eli Siegel: As artist, do you think every time you are working at something your purpose is to make the world look better?
Marcia Rackow: Yes.”

And he asked me: “Did you ever feel the whole world just became a blank?”

“Marcia Rackow: Yes.
Eli Siegel: Do you want to feel that now? Close your eyes and annihilate everybody. (I did this).
ES: It’s the first time you did it publically, isn’t it?
MR: Yes, it is.
ES: Is it a desire to nullify reality, and show some opposition to it?
MR: I think so.
ES: Do you think the way you see reality now is the best way?
MR: No, it isn’t.”

And he said, with humor: “Here is a bulletin”—he called it:

Spacemen All Are We
We are all Spacemen; we all have room for improvement.

I began to see the debate I had been in all my life, and that what I really wanted was to be affected by things as fully, richly, deeply as possible. This is the biggest hope of every woman. I’m grateful that in my marriage to Ken Kimmelman, Aesthetic Realism consultant and an important filmmaker, I am affected by who he truly is, and how the opposites of reality are in him: seriousness and humor, depth and lightness. I need and love his critical perception, through which I am more myself.

The Debate in an Important Artist of the 20th Century

The art of Anna Magnani (1908 – 1973) has moved people tremendously, myself included. As a film actress she put together an earthy, passionate sensuality with deep intelligence, and great human feeling. Ms. Magnani is known in America for her role in the Rose Tattoo with Burt Lancaster for which she won an Oscar in 1955.

Francesco and Pina, from the film Rome, Open City
Francesco and Pina, from the film Rome, Open City

She also played with Anthony Quinn in Wild Is the Wind, and with Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind.

But the film that made her world famous—which I love and think is more powerful than her American films—is Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta, (Open City) about the Italian Resistance during the Nazi Occupation of Rome. Guilio Cesare Castello writes:

“Roma, Citta Aperta signaled in 1945 the birth…of a great actress, able to express with a truth and a burning intensity, without precedent, the energy and the torments of a woman of the people.”

This was, said Anna Magnani, “the most important film of my career.” In it she plays a widowed young mother, Pina, whose marriage to Francesco, a member of the Resistance, is to take place the next day. In the photo above she is telling Francesco, “I’m not afraid. Never.”

From film Rome, Open City,
Still from film Rome, Open City

The next morning as they and their friend, Manfredi, the leader of the Resistance whom they are hiding, prepare for the wedding, Pina looks out the window and screams, “I Tedeschi!” The Germans have surrounded the building.

Francesco and Manfredi escape to the roof. The terrified women, children, and old people are rounded up in front of the building.

Still from Rome, Open City

A German soldier taunts Pina, caressing her arm. She slaps him. He grabs her. Then suddenly she hears Francesco calling her and she sees he is being driven away in a truck.

She breaks away from the German soldiers, screaming “Francesco, Francesco…” As we see her running towards the truck, the Germans open fire and she falls dead in the street.

Ms. Magnani spoke about how much this scene affected her:

“When I went out through the front door….I went straight back to the time when they were taking young boys away off the streets of Rome….All of a sudden I wasn’t me any more…I was Pina….[I was] filled with a sense of anguish and I managed to convey it on the screen. It was terrible. Whoever would have expected to feel so deeply about it?”

And you feel she is proud, because she was able to give dramatic form to the feelings of millions of Italian men and women. In his lecture, Aesthetic Realism and Beauty: Acting, Mr. Siegel asked: “How much can the self be what it wants to be in taking on other things?” Ms. Magnani took on the feelings of other people with a comprehension and unrestraint that made her great.

Yet, along with her desire to feel deeply the emotions of others, in her life she had another way of seeing that was very different. Observed her friend, Antonello Trombadori:

“There was an approach to life that was…suspicious. She saw enemies everywhere; she didn’t see sincerity anywhere. She was profoundly skeptical about human goodness.”

And she was troubled because she felt she did not know herself, or feel anyone else did or could. She once said in an interview,

“What frightens me is suddenly to disappear without having discovered who Magnani was….Inquietude simmers in me like a kettle of water on a burning stove.”

In an Aesthetic Realism Lesson of a young Italian man in 1966 Mr.Siegel asked with deep compassion: “Do you think Ms. Anna Magnani suffers?” He said, “Yes.” Had Anna Magnani, who died in 1973, been able to study Aesthetic Realism, she would have been able to understand herself and suffered much, much less.

Early Decisions

Shortly after her birth in 1908, her mother Marina, who was 17 and unwed, married another man and moved to Egypt, leaving Anna behind. Though her grandmother doted on her, Anna felt then and for the rest of her life that she had been abandoned.

In an Aesthetic Realism Lesson Mr. Siegel said to a young man who had used the fact that he’d been born illegitimately to be against the whole world:

“People have a penchant for feeling deserted….The most illegitimate thing in the world is selfishness, also the most common. However daring we are, however conventional we are, we are selfish….It’s never too late to say, ‘I want to use my parents [whoever they are] to see the world better.’ “

The little Anna used both her parents to be angry with the world. She found consolation, as many children have, in herself—saying:

“My greatest pleasure was to hide in my room, stretch out on the bed and with my eyes closed begin to imagine….without any one able to stop me….In this room I was alone in the world.”

It can be asked: as a person creates a separate world, is she being fair to things around her, or lessening them, spurning them, having a spurious victory over them?

Yet as a girl Anna also wanted to be truly affected by things. She loved to take walks with her grandmother around Rome. “My grandmother,” she said, “always laughed and talked, talked, talked of everything.” She encouraged the young girl’s love for the piano. For eight years Anna studied at the renowned Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecila, and later, studied acting at the Eleanora Duse school.

Anna Magnani and Toto

While there, Dario Niccodemi, the most noted theatre director in Italy, saw her work and selected her to join his company. She soon became successful both in dramatic theatre productions and also in musical comedy reviews. Here she is with the famous Italian comic actor Toto.

As actress, she wanted to see what people felt, to be fair to them. She also wanted to fight for justice in Italy. During the Second World War she courageously hid Resistance fighters in her home, including the director Lucchino Visconti—and she expressed her anti-fascism as openly as possible in these musical comedy reviews. Elsa de’ Giorgi describes a performance during the war:

“She was asked to do one encore after another, especially for the songs in Roman dialect that criticized and mocked all the things that had been torturing the audience until that moment….Then, all of a sudden, her expression changed to melancholy, the words of the songs tugged at the heart strings and everyone in the audience stopped laughing, their eyes filled with tears.”

The opposites in Anna Magnani, her comic exuberance and her ability to convey the depths of melancholy a person can feel, her explosive energy, joie de vivre and her meditativeness—stirred people.

Mr. Siegel said in the Aesthetic Realism Acting Lesson:

“Acting is a certain way of taking the contraries of the world. It is a way of being somebody else for the purpose of coming back home immediately. You take a trip in order to find out who you are.”

That grand principle of acting—of wanting to be affected deeply as a means of finding out who you are—is what she needed so much in life, and in love.

Should a Man Affect Us—& How Much? 

Anna Magnani didn’t know that her purpose with a man needed to be the same as her purpose in her art. In an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known [#207], Mr. Siegel explains:

“Unless a woman knows she is using a man to like the world and is proud to do so, she will be suspicious. A woman will see a man represent the world in a graceful, valid way or she will think, in having him, she is conquering the world.”

Roberto Rossellini and Anna Magnani

In 1945, after one marriage failed, Ms. Magnani began working with Roberto Rossellini on Open City. She felt he brought out new possibilities in her, and they came to care deeply for each other. “I believed in Rossellini. I shared maybe the most important years of my life with him,” she said. Her feeling for him, I think, was the deepest for any man she knew. Yet their relationship was tumultuous, and they often quarreled in public. “Anna,” writes their close friend, Sergio Amidei, “was always afraid that she would be overwhelmed and lose her personality.”

There was a contest between respect and contempt in both of them—wanting to be more affected by each other and wanting to feel less, and in 1950 Rossellini left Anna for Ingrid Bergman. Magnani said with a mingling of bitterness and contempt:

“The fact is that women like me only get attached to men with personalities stronger than theirs. And I’ve never found a man whose personality was able to dominate mine.”

I think Anna Magnani felt she lost power in being affected by a man, and so she was angry, and there were those violent quarrels the newspapers reported. I think also, though there was respect for Rossellini as director, she did not like the way he saw her simply as a woman. Did she feel he wanted to be less affected by her?

In an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel spoke to me in a way that would have been tremendously useful to Anna Magnani. He said:

“The question is in letting ourselves be part of another self, are we lessening ourselves or not? We would like to be dominant and also nursed, which is being submissive in another way. As soon as we feel we are nestling in the valley of another personality we can feel strange….People don’t know how much to give themselves to another person.”

In Aesthetic Realism consultations which I’m proud to give with my colleagues, women are learning that the world different from them is what completes them, enables them to be fully themselves. It is the desire to know the world and honestly like it that makes sense of our desire to affect and be affected, and enables love to be both strengthening and romantic. I want women all over the world to know this.