Jimmy Cagney — or Does the Way We Fight Make Us Strong or Weak?

By Bennett Cooperman

James Cagney
James Cagney

I’m glad to feature this important paper by my colleague, actor and Aesthetic Realism consultant Bennett Cooperman. –Anne Fielding

Aesthetic Realism explains that every fight we have is based on either respect or contempt for the world. For example, when people fought the Nazis in World War II, they were fighting in behalf of respect—for justice. But most fights are based on the desire to have contempt, to be superior, and this desire causes hell in bedrooms, on city streets, and between nations. When we have contempt we hope for fights and this makes us cruel.

For much of my life I did just that. I remember a typical morning years ago. Getting ready for work, I was sure that later my boss was going to pounce on me and find a flaw with something I did. As I put on my tie and walked to the subway, I planned my counter-attack. But when I saw my boss he looked up and said in the friendliest way, “Oh hello, Bennett. Good morning.” I was shocked.

I am very grateful to Aesthetic Realism for showing me how to criticize my desire to fight with the world and people, and for teaching me that what I want most is to care for things in a large, accurate way. Because of what I’m learning, I have a happy life.

In this paper I’ll speak about my own life and about one of America’s most loved actors, Jimmy Cagney. I’ll show the two ways we fight—how one strengthens and the other weakens us—and how these were in both the life and the art of Jimmy Cagney.

A False Fight Begins Early

Growing up in Florida, the times I saw the world as most likable were through music and dancing. I remember when I first learned how to do a triple-time step in tap—it was so precise and so free! The step begins with a fight—you stamp the floor with your foot. Then you take a little jump, and what follows immediately is lightsome and pattering. Then another stamp, and the pattern begins again. When the dancer gets that rhythm of stamp and patter, something fighting and then almost delicately caressing the floor at once, it is beautiful.

But mostly I felt the world was a place to get, as Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, “victories for just me.” I was a snob, and competitive with other children. My family had a nice home and cars, and I compared us to every other family in the neighborhood with us coming out on top. I could appear like the friendly boy next door; but inside I was calculating. I avoided fist fights, but in my mind I was constantly arguing with people, scoring points and trying to put them down.

I prided myself on being a sharp person and I couldn’t under-stand why, as time went on, I felt miserable and that something big was missing in my life. In an Aesthetic Realism class years later, Ellen Reiss described so truly my desire to fight the world and the kind of emotion it made me miss when she said, “You are a ‘nobody-is-going-to-pull-the-wool-over-my-eyes’ person. But you also want to see a sunrise.”

The Fight in Jimmy Cagney

In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #151, Eli Siegel writes:

To be born is to engage, willy-nilly and constantly, in the great fight between the seeing of the world as uncouth, unwelcome, painful; and as profound, subtle, engaging.

Jimmy Cagney had that fight. He was born in New York City on July 17, 1899, the second child of James and Carolyn Cagney. They lived first on Avenue D and 8th Street, and then uptown, always struggling to get a decent meal on the table. Then a baby sister and brother died of childhood illnesses. With all this, there was an energy in the Cagney household of four boys and a girl that was admirable. Jimmy Cagney writes in his autobiography Cagney by Cagney, “We were a musical family, with the piano always on the go.”

One of the things that pained Jimmy Cagney was the way he saw his father. . . .Read more

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