As reprinted in Big Media, South Africa.
What Is the Courage We Are Looking For?
Aesthetic Realism and Emma Mashinini of South Africa
I am very happy that in honor of Women’s Month, Big Media [South Africa] is reprinting a paper written in 1992 by the late Irene Reiss (1915-2009) who was a consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. We were colleagues in the study of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the great critic and educator, Eli Siegel. I am grateful to have been her friend. Two years after this paper was presented at a public seminar, apartheid ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa. This paper was published in my column in various newspapers in the United States, and introduced thousands of people to the courageous life and work of Emma Mashinini. I’m glad that both women came to know and value each other’s work. While Mrs. Reiss, one of the most useful and kind women in American history, died last year at the age of 94, it is immensely moving that her work and meaning live on!
—Alice Bernstein, journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate, New York City
In his definition of courage, Eli Siegel, the founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, writes: “Courage is the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from.”
Aesthetic Realism has given people the means to study consciously how to honestly like and believe in the world, which is the one means for our being truly courageous. And it also explains the constant opposition in a person to liking the world: the desire to build oneself up by having contempt for it.
I once felt like a terrific coward because of my fears, which I was ashamed to speak of. I was afraid to stay home alone and afraid to leave my home. On the other hand, I saw myself as politically courageous. Having lived through the Depression of the 1930s, I felt an economy that permitted so much poverty and suffering needed to be changed. I spoke out about my views when I was employed, and also with people I met. But I knew I was very suspicious of, and cold to, the individual people I came in contact with. I could not make sense of these two ways in myself. I did not know then that I was in a fight between wanting to care for people and the world and wanting to have contempt for them.
I am grateful for what Eli Siegel explained: that my fears came from my desire to dismiss and have contempt for the world and people. I learned that contempt is the cause of a person’s timidity, cowardice, and fear—some of the painful ways the self will punish itself for being unfair to the world. And I was to learn that wanting to see the depths of another person means you have to give up the false concentration on yourself, as against everything else. This is one form of courage.
The Beginning of Courage: Wanting to Know
From my earliest years I had felt that this is a world that should be looked on with suspicion, and that the family seemed the only safe place.
By the time I began studying Aesthetic Realism in 1947, at the age of 32, I was having less and less to do with the world—my contempt was dangerously close to incapacitating me. I had gotten to a painful state where a comfortable preference on my part had changed to an inability: a fear of going out in to the world. In a beautifully critical counter-offensive to my contempt, Mr. Siegel said to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson:
“You think you are too interested in yourself and not just enough to other things….The first relation of a person is with the world. You should use your mother, sister, husband and child to symbolize this relation.”
I had made what I saw as a cozy world of my family as against the whole world, and I learned we cannot be courageous in a world we see as inimical. Mr. Siegel’s purpose always was to encourage me to have a belief in the world based on the facts. He said to me:
“To be learning something, means that you are saying the world has to do with Irene Reiss. When you are alone you don’t welcome the world….The more you go after knowledge when you are alone, the more courage you will have when meeting things.”
He was right, and I love the way he fought to stop me from going away from the world. He taught me to see differently, and my life began to change as I learned to see people with more depth—people I met, and people in literature. “The world, art, and self explain each other” Aesthetic Realism explains, “ each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I learned about myself from characters in novels, such as Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre; and I saw with wonder and excitement how opposites were in the very structure of the work I had done in the past: bookkeeping—for instance, receipts and disbursements, assets and liabilities, debits and credits. As I learned how the world and people have an aesthetic structure in common—the oneness of opposites—I felt I was related to more and more things, and the contempt that had made me feel so afraid was effectively opposed.
In his definition of Courage, Mr. Siegel writes: “Courage is an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them.” Every woman and man needs to learn what I did: that wanting to know what is true in any situation that may arise, enables us to honestly like ourselves. I had always looked to feel slighted and hurt by people. It was a way of justifying my case against the world. Because of the education I received, I began to ask myself questions such as: How does this person see the world? Is she or he just out to hurt me, or trying to be happy, as I am? Trying to understand made me feel kinder and more courageous.
For more than 30 years I witnessed Eli Siegel’s constant desire to see what is true, as I attended magnificent classes on economics, literature, history, the arts and sciences, and the everyday questions of humanity. And I witnessed his great courage as his work was subjected to a cruel boycott by the press and literary establishment— people who were jealous of his honesty and tremendous knowledge. “Real courage,” he wrote, “which wishes to be graceful, is always after the facts.” This is the courage I saw.
A Woman of Great Courage
I speak now about a woman of South Africa, Emma Mashinini, who I admire very much. As a black woman living under apartheid—the brutal system of institutional racism—she devoted her life to fighting for the rights and dignity of her people. In 1975 she founded the militant Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa, which by 1992 had grown to 80,000 members. As a leading woman in the trade union movement, she was harassed constantly by government police. She was imprisoned in solitary confinement for six months and was tortured. This did not stop her struggle for justice.
In her autobiography titled Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life ( Routledge New York, 1991), she tells vividly of what apartheid did to a person, a marriage, children—and the pain is palpable. Through her experience, we can see what millions of black people endured. She was courageous and used the pain and degradation she was in the midst of, not to think only of her comfort, but to care more for people!
Contempt, the Cause of Racism and the Profit System
Emma Mashinini was born in Johannesburg in 1929. All of her life—until 1994 and the first all-race elections—she lived under the brutal political and economic system in which 95% of South Africa’s 36 million people, because they were not classified as white, were subordinated and exploited by the white minority.
In his definition of Courage, Mr. Siegel writes: “Courage is a love of the external, and a belief in it, even as we fight it.”
The world Emma Mashinini met was a fascist country that exemplified a double affliction of contempt: racism and also the profit system, which is based on one man’s making money from the labor and very lives of others, without regard for their welfare. That millions of men, women, and children in South Africa had ravaged lives was unmistakable and criminal. Most of them lived in abject poverty, were denied the right to vote, deprived of decent medical care and education, restricted in their travel, and told where to live.
Under these conditions, it is a beautiful thing that instead of feeling hopeless in the face of the powers stacked against her, Emma Mashinini had a belief in the world large enough to feel it was a world worth fighting for.
When Emma was 7 years old, she and her parents and her six sisters and brother were forced to move. Their home was bulldozed to make way for the building of a white suburb. This was the fate of 3 million Africans forced to leave their homes and move to poor areas, euphemistically called “homelands.”
Her mother was a dressmaker and her father worked for a dairy, at subsistence wages for long hours, but their circumstances were better than those of many other black people. Emma writes:
“The memory of our little home…always fills me with happiness….There was one room and a kitchen. This one room served as a dining room and a bedroom. Six of us slept on the floor, with thick blankets as mattresses…no bathroom or running water in the house. On our kitchen dresser hung blue Delft china cups, and on the dresser were crystal glasses and shining brass vases.”
And she tells of how, when her mother went to town, she would wear gloves and always returned holding a bunch of flowers and a cake. Her mother wanted to feel, with all the misery and injustice around her, there were still things in this world she could like. Emma Mashinini writes: “From my childhood, because of my mother, I grew to love beautiful things.”
It is very moving to see this desire to like the external world in the face of desperate and brutal conditions—conditions which contributed to her father’s desertion and breakup of the family.
In Part One, Irene Reiss discussed the definition of Courage, by Eli Siegel, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism: “Courage is the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from.” She described attending lectures by Mr. Siegel on world history and culture, and lessons in which she was encouraged to study how to honestly like and believe in the world, which is the one means of our being truly courageous. Aesthetic Realism also explains the constant opposition in a person to liking the world: the desire to build oneself up by having contempt. Contempt is the cause of all injustice, including racism.
Mrs. Reiss began discussing the early life of Emma Mashinini, and her autobiography, Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life (Routledge New York, 1991). Born in 1929, Emma lived under apartheid: the brutal political and economic system in which 95% of South Africa’s 36 million people, because they were black, were forced to live in areas reserved for “non-whites” and denied their basic human rights. In 1975, she founded the militant Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa. As a leader in the trade union movement, she was harassed constantly by government police. As you’ll see, this did not stop her struggle for justice. Some years ago, I contacted Emma Mashinini in South Africa. She was excited to learn about Irene Reiss’s paper and about Aesthetic Realism. We spoke again last week, on the occasion of Emma’s 81st birthday!
–Alice Bernstein, journalist & Aesthetic Realism Associate, NYC.
At the age of 15, Emma was forced to leave school and support herself by cleaning homes. She married at 17, she said, so that she could have a stable home. Both she and her husband Roger were badly affected by worry about money, as are marriages increasingly today in the United States. But in South Africa, there was the additional horror of apartheid and the humiliation of a whole people.
In their 12-year marriage, Emma bore 6 children, 3 of whom died within days of birth because of poor medical care for black people. Her husband, who worked in the factory and on the streets of Johannesburg, felt robbed of his dignity every day. He retaliated not only against his wife but, through her, against the world. There were frequent quarrels and physical abuse. Emma came to feel the whole world was oppressing her. She did not know what only Aesthetic Realism teaches, that she, like every person, had two desires: to know the world and to have contempt for it.
In his definition of Courage, Eli Siegel writes: “Real courage, which wishes to be graceful, is always after the facts.”
I have learned that no matter what the circumstances, unless a woman and man want to know each other’s feelings there has to be anger with and contempt for each other. Emma had reason to be critical of her husband, because all of us can always see things better than we do. Her husband spent money on expensive clothes even while the family needed food and Emma was angry. But it takes courage, when you are in pain yourself, to think of the pain of another. There is also that in a woman that would rather be clearly disappointed than to have to think more about her husband.
In order to afford the bare necessities for her family and to save the marriage, Emma worked in a factory. She vividly describes her grueling 12-hour day away from home, and then all she had to do when she got home. She is scornful of her husband for spending money on himself when they desperately needed food. However, years later, trying to know what her husband felt, she wrote:
“Perhaps our men were trying to maintain their dignity, which they felt was stripped from them in the terrible oppression we suffered, and they needed to look smart in those imported clothes, as if to say, ‘Look, I’m [dressed] so smart. I am human after all.”
Emma is courageous as she wants to see more the facts that made for her troubled marriage.
The Courage to Know
[In this section, Irene Reiss discusses consultations which are based on the Aesthetic Realism lessons Eli Siegel gave from 1941 to 1978. In them an individual studies the questions of his or her life with three consultants on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. This principle is at the heart of every consultation: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”]
In Aesthetic Realism consultations, people have seen what I have seen for my own life: that there is a true pride in hearing criticism that can change what makes us ashamed, and have us stronger and kinder.
In her first consultation, Lila Garvey (not her real name), age 59, told us she was very nervous and unsure, although she acted self-assured. She had been divorced for some years but was still very bitter about her marriage. She told us: “I was 35 years old and I thought I loved him—he seemed nice and was interested in me. I found him interesting and it was a chance to escape from the family.”
Consultants: There is always a feeling of unfinished business in people who have been divorced. If you try to see what your husband felt inside, you will respect yourself. You now have a chance to be fair to him in your mind. Did he feel you respected him?
Lila Garvey: I don’t know.
Consultants: Did you act superior to him? Can a man be made to feel he is a failure?
Lila Garvey: Perhaps.
Consultants: Do you see him as having the opposites of the world in him? Is he both hard and soft?
Lila Garvey: Yes.
Since Mrs. Garvey communicated with her ex-husband because of their mutual concern for their son, we gave her an assignment to ask him for his criticisms of her, and to write them down. She was courageous and did so. Two criticisms were that she is too cold and not interested in another person’s feelings, and that she wants to tell people what to do and control them.
As Mrs. Garvey got a new sense of herself, admitting that these criticisms were mainly justified, she felt relieved and also proud—because the desire to change in order to be fair to the world always makes us proud. She also said she respects her ex-husband more.
Emma Mashinini Fights to Like the World
It was in a clothing factory that Emma Mashinini began her union career, as she saw the humiliation and cruelty with which black workers were treated. They were cursed for not producing enough, and constantly threatened with being fired. As a union organizer, starting in 1975, she was often physically removed from shopping areas where she tried to organize the black workers. She writes: “I resent being dominated by white people, be they man or woman….[We are] just trying to say, ‘I am human. I exist. I am a complete person.”
That year she played a central role in the founding of the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa. Because she had the desire to know and have feeling for people, she was courageous despite the fear of arrest by the security police who worked hand in hand with the employers and were against unions. She felt the trade union movement was essential for the liberation of black workers, and she would not be driven from her work.
In November 1981, at the age of 52, what she had feared for a long time happened: early one morning before arising, Emma Mashinini was arrested while her husband and children were forced to stand outside in their night clothes, and her house was searched for records of political and union activities. She was detained in jail for six months, most of the time in solitary confinement. She had to sleep on the floor—there was no bed, no chair. These cruel conditions, including bad food which she could not eat and the lack of human contact, caused her to suffer physical ailments. She tells of how she would even look forward to the periodic interrogations, because then she would see another human face. She writes: “I even thanked myself for being so ill, because of the outings to the doctor.”
And she writes with pride of the support of her second husband, Tom Mashinini, who had demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court, demanding her release. Her second marriage, in which there is mutual concern for the rights of other people, appears to be a source of strength to her. Once, when she was taken for interrogation, her husband had brought her various fruit juices in boxes, which she describes:
“One was peach, orange, apple and so forth. I had these boxes in my cell. When they were empty I kept them. The colour meant much to me—the green, the orange—it was closeness to nature. It kept me going.”
In the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #703, Eli Siegel has asked this urgent question:
“Is this true: No matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?”
Emma Mashinini was fighting to like the world. After many months in solitary confinement, the struggle between feeling the world was something still to know, and feeling it was unbearable, inimical, came to a head. In 1992 she told an interviewer: “I was ready to die when I realized I could no longer remember my baby’s name—but I kept trying.”
Her strong desire to see, even under these brutal circumstances, gave her courage to keep trying. The fight raged in her for days, and on the fifth day she remembered her daughter’s name, and felt connected to the world again.
After 6 months, never having been formally charged with any crime, she was released and told not to discuss her detention with anyone. But she defied this order because she wants the brutality of apartheid known—brutality against which there has been an insufficient world outcry.
For years after her detention and despite her fear that at any moment the security police were coming to get her again, Emma Mashinini resumed her union activities. Courage does enlarge a person and makes for respect.
In the late 1980s, Emma Mashinini was associated with the Anglican Church of Bishop Desmond Tutu, and worked with detainees, some of whom were school children as young as 11 years old. She wanted to encourage them to feel that the world is not against them. In 1989 she was heartened by developments and wrote in the Preface to her autobiography: “I close my manuscript with a surge of elation, hope and happiness.” Her courage has, I am sure, encouraged millions of other people. And in 1992, as I give this paper, news has come of a referendum in South Africa approving the move toward ending apartheid! This is a sign of what Eli Siegel stated in 1970:
“Justice is still in business, it is still working. It may have begun three thousand years ago, but it intends to get its man. [Justice] is more persistent than the Northwest Mounted Police.”
And justice is what is called for in “Ethics—the Only Answer for the Economy” which appeared as ads in the New York Times and USA Today, in which Ellen Reiss writes:
“In order for the United States economy to fare well, it has to be based on an honest answering of this decisive question, asked with such kindness by Eli Siegel: What does a person deserve by being a person?”
This is the question everyone in South Africa and the world must answer honestly. It is a question that has given a new direction to the life of Lila Garvey. In a document Mrs. Garvey wrote, expressing her gratitude for the changes in her through her study in consultations, she says:
“Aesthetic Realism enables every human being to be a success because it is in the power of every person to like himself through how he sees the world, and this is our largest purpose.”
I agree with Mrs. Garvey, and I am proud to work with many others so that all people can meet the knowledge which enables us to have the kind, courageous lives we were meant to have.
Irene Reiss’s article, “We Can Feel More Alive at Any Age,” has appeared widely in the United States. She and her husband Daniel Reiss, both of whom died in their nineties, published letters on the answer to the catastrophic cost of healthcare for everyone including senior citizens. Mrs. Reiss's seminar papers have included discussions of such noted women as Lillian Wald, Frances Perkins, Sarah Delano Roosevelt, Imelda Marcos, and Mary Pickford. Some seminar titles are: How Can We Look Good in Our Own Eyes?; The Fight in Women Between Energy and Weariness; How Much Feeling Should We Have for People?; Honest Criticism—Are Women Looking for It? You may learn more by visiting the website: www.AestheticRealism.org