Rachel—and True Individuality
By Carrie Wilson
Every woman, like every man, is hoping for true individuality, and the question is, what is it? In his essay “There Is Individualism,” Eli Siegel, the great poet, critic, and founder of Aesthetic Realism, explains:
True individualism can be described as the affirmation, completing of the self through the courageous and just relation of the self with more and more things. The self is both definition and abundance; it is one thing with unending relation.
I’ll speak of what I’m grateful to have learned and to teach other women also, and about what we can learn from the life and art of the great 19th century French actress, Rachel. The “courageous and just relation of [her] self” with the classic heroines in the dramas of Corneille and Racine, has given Rachel immortal individuality. Meanwhile, another, false idea of individuality weakened her, as it does women today.
I. Individuality and What I Learned About Sameness and Difference
In his essay, Mr. Siegel writes:
We have for ourselves a question in art. This question is: How can I affirm the oneness, or particularity of me, while honoring the desire I have to meet and be accurate with more and more things.
As a child I had this question very much. I was interested in many things. I loved to read, to draw, and sing. With my friends, or alone, I would act out scenes from films like “The King and I,” “Hans Christian Anderson,” and “Robin Hood.” But I early came to feel it was how I was different from, and therefore, as I saw it, better than other people that gave me my distinction.
For instance, I had been praised for my wavy hair. When I was about 13, visiting London with my family, I overheard my English aunt remark on the lovely waves in my older sister’s hair, and I felt a fury rise up in me; I was the one with wavy hair, and my sister was robbing me of my glory! This anger, and the shame I felt for having it, are as vivid in my memory as the Tower of London.
By my early twenties I saw becoming a noted actress as the way to have my individuality shine. The best thing in me truly loved the attempt to get within the feelings of another person and try to represent them in an authentic way. But I also loved the approval I got through acting and used it to feel I was a uniquely talented future star among people who were largely boring and contemptible.
In an essay titled “The Battle of Mind,” published in The Right Of #830, Mr. Siegel, describing the battle between respect and contempt that was waging in me, writes:
We do some art work, the purpose of which is to get respect for what is different from ourselves–and then we meet someone, and we work for contempt without knowing it.
Once, while taking part in a college musical, I found a rose in my dressing room, with a note from young a man I had never met. I learned that he played in the orchestra, and graciously allowed him to walk me home. I then proceeded to complain for ten interminable blocks because another girl had been given an extra song to sing–when I was supposed to be the star of the show. I saw the disillusionment and shock on his face, but I couldn’t stop myself, my vanity was not in my control. Though I hated myself for the way I was talking, I felt if anybody else got glory, it took away from mine. Had I not studied Aesthetic Realism, I would have been driven by competition and jealousy to this very day, envying other actresses their careers, other women their husbands, and never really knowing who I was.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, I told Mr. Siegel, “I maintain the myth within myself that I’m special.” He replied, “You’re special. Everyone is special. You don’t think there’s another person just like you, do you?” “No,” I answered. “There’s no harm in that,” he explained. “It’s how you use it.” And he asked,“What do you hope for? What has to be the hope of everybody?”
Carrie Wilson. That they’ll be happy and do well.
Eli Siegel. It’s chemical, see. Everything that’s compounded with another hopes that the result will be good for the thing being compounded with another. So, do you believe you hope a compound of world and Carrie is good?
CW. Yes. I feel that one of the areas in which I’ve hurt myself most is not seeing how I’m like other people.
ES. So, what do you think you would get to if you studied how you are like other people? Suppose a blade of grass were compared to a hundred other blades of grass, what do you think it would get to in awhile?
I guessed, “It would feel larger?” And then Mr. Siegel amazed me by saying, “It would feel different. But in a true way. The self is a constant study in sameness and difference.”
And he explained, “You were suffering like anything because you made everything else too different from you…The problem we all have is how to maintain our individuality and not make difference unfriendly.” Through my study, I came to see that the more deeply I wanted to know and be fair to other people and things, the more my individuality would come forth. I’m very grateful to Mr. Siegel for his good will in teaching me this and so much more.
II. Two Kinds of Individuality in a Girl of France
Elisa-Rachel Felix was born in 1821, to Jewish parents, Esther and Jacob Felix, itinerant pedlars. To help provide for the family of seven, Rachel and her sister had to sing in the streets of Paris. Rachel acted as she sang, and passers-by were struck by the intensity of this pale, slight girl with her deep voice.
When she was nine or ten, “A neighbor,” writes biographer Joanna Richardson, “lent her an…edition of Racine.” Rachel told her mother: ‘Now I know what my career is to be: I shall act in tragedy.’ The child of the streets bought copies of Racine and Corneille. As she went about les Halles, finding food for the family, she contrived to save enough for a cheap (edition of) Moliere.”
What was impelling this young girl, poor, and barely able to read, is described by Mr. Siegel in his essay “Individuality as Aesthetic Sameness and Difference.” He writes:
The keenest, most dramatic, least describable thing in an individual is his difference, his permanent separation, his intimate mobile sequestered worldness…. While having this difference,…a self yearns, pines, longs–dramatic verbs!–to be like other things. The self has a lust for multitudinous identification.
This difference and sameness in self, Aesthetic Realism maintains, is like the beginning of art.
At the age of eleven, Rachel was discovered and admitted to a dramatic school. She was taught, writes Richardson:
by the man supremely qualified to judge and encourage her: [the actor] Samson….He criticized her with the severity that teachers always show to favourite pupils; and…took her into the heart of his family.
Rachel, Richardson continues:
rose every morning at six…working with the tenacity which became proverbial….[She] accepted all the help, considered all the advice of relations and friends…[and] wandered, hour after hour, through the Louvre,..learning her gestures, her bearing,…from the sculpture of ancient times.
Here, we see a self proudly learning from other people and things, affirming and completing herself through respect.
In 1838, at the age of 17, Rachel made her debut in Corneille’s Horace, and then played Emilie in his Cinna. Writes Richardson, “there had been no actor sufficiently original, sufficiently inspired to keep tragedy alive. It was now a dead art.” “And then,” wrote Theophile Gautier,
suddenly, there appeared a young girl come from no one knew where,…with eyes of flame in a mask of marble, who threw a piece of Greek drapery over her shoulder and began to recite ….By her grace, we have seen Hermione again, Andromaque, Emilie, Pauline, all the…noble heroines whom our fathers so admired.
There was a passionate sincerity of feeling in Rachel, accompanied by beautiful planning and control. “I have studied my sobs in the fourth act,” she wrote to Samson. The result is described in these words of George Henry Lewes, quoted by Martha Baird in her book Opposites in the Drama: “Her wail was so piercing and so musical that the whole audience rose in a transport to applaud her.” Miss Baird comments: “Piercing and musical—what does that mean? It means pain made beautiful. It is Aristotle’s pity and terror, and the audience is transported.” As people saw Rachel perform they saw the opposites of the world given honest, living form. In his lecture, “How to Be Angry; or, Corneille’s Cinna” Eli Siegel spoke of Rachel as Emilie in that play:
One of the great moments in theatre was Rachel’s playing of it in Paris in 1838. Rachel was a vibrating repository of good and evil. [The relation of] anger and being pleased [in her portrayal of Emilie] got to people….Emilie is one of the fiercest women in all literature….She is not narrow …she is fierce because an idea of what is right is impelling her.
I believe Rachel felt in the heroines of classic French drama, a resolution of conflicting things within herself—ferocity and justice, anger and love, courage and despair, passionate feeling expressed with the noble control of rhyming French hexameters. In the art of acting she satisfied her “lust for multitudinous identification”; through it she found proud, free, joyous individuality.
Yet Rachel also had another notion of individuality. Mr. Siegel wrote: “False individuality is…shown in the desire to have one’s way, truth or no truth.” Fame and power came to her suddenly. She was courted by society, praised everywhere. Her father argued fiercely with the Theatre for an enormous increase in her salary, which meant less for the other actors. These demands, which she did not oppose, led to a quarrel with Samson. At 18 she wrote, “I have my success, it is true, but not a single friend.”
The young actress soon found that there were wealthy, powerful men who could make her way easier. Writes biographer Francis Gribble: “She was passionately eager to succeed, and it seemed to her that the end justified any means.” Samson wrote, warning her of “These seductive snares held out to your weakness, who would not succumb to them?” He feared for her health as well as her reputation–she had, by the age of 21 the first signs of the tuberculosis which was to claim her life at the age of 37.
She and Samson were reconciled, but she did not heed his or any other criticism of her personal life. The girl who’d had only one calico dress, was now presented diamonds by the Czar of Russia and the Queen of England. Dazzled by her success she wrote: “Oh, glory! glory! it’s the finest thing next to God.”
III. Individuality and Criticism
In his lecture on Corneille’s Cinna, Eli Siegel said:
The drama has always been critical….Aesthetic Realism says the greatest thing everyone wants is criticism….Every dramatist has persons being sure and then bearing the ordeal that they had no right to be that sure. When people are affected by their own criticism or their own conscience, that is a time people become sloppy, because in having misgivings they think they are weak. Maybe they are weak in shooing off the criticism.
Rachel sought criticism of her art with a humility which amazed people. But criticism of her personal life she saw as an affront to her individuality. Women need to learn that criticism is not an insult but a needed and lovely means to becoming more ourselves.
One of the places we need criticism most is in how we see love. Women think we’ll affirm our individuality through the power we can have over men. This was so in my life. In TRO #l50, subtitled “What Opposes Love?’ Mr. Siegel writes:
Any love,…not used to like the world, that much has contempt in it. When we use a person not to like the world but to make ourselves important or successful, we are having contempt both for the person and for the world. We also, though we may not know it, have contempt for ourselves.
Katherine Martin is a young woman whose life has changed tremendously. At the time she began her study of Aesthetic Realism, she was very pained, though she concealed it with a poised exterior. Particularly, she was pained by her relations with men. We asked: “How would you describe what you’re most hoping for?”
Katherine Martin. Well, I’d like to be honest, more honest than I am now.
Consultants. Do you think you’re deceptive?
Consultants: To be the person you want to be, you have to see you are two people. One Katherine Martin wants to respect the world, and the other thinks she will be powerful through contempt.
Ms. Martin had spoken of feeling very bad after a weekend on Fire Island spent with a man who had an impressive resume, but whom she did not respect. We asked, “As you think of yourself as to love, do you look beautiful to yourself?”
KM. No, I think I look pathetic, foolish.
We asked: “How much company do you think you have? Do you think that just about every woman in America can despise herself for the way she gets pleasure?”
She was surprised, but realized it was so. “Yes!” she answered. We explained:
Eli Siegel taught us that to want pleasure from a person, without respect for him, makes for shame. That’s the reason you can feel so bad in your own company, because the way you have other people in your mind and heart is selfish, there’s too much contempt.
What Katherine Martin heard is something Rachel Felix wanted to learn. Rachel had many close relations with men in her life, most of whom were highly placed. At 20 she became the mistress of Count Walewski, the natural son of Napoleon, who gave her a magnificent house. She bore him a son, but while he was away on a diplomatic mission, she was unfaithful to him. He discovered this, and left her. Rachel, in despair, wrote to a friend:
All the fault is on my side…. so that I can find no peace in a clear conscience…but do not pity me. It was all my doing, and God has punished me for it.
Yet in the next sentence she says: “Farewell! Pity me! You can never pity me enough.”
“Which do you prefer,” Mr. Siegel asked me once in a class, “pity or criticism?” I answered, “Pity.” Rachel, like most women, thought she needed pity, but what she needed was criticism.
Aesthetic Realism shows the very opposites she was not clear about in her life were one in her art. In his lecture on Cinna, Mr. Siegel described what thrilled audiences as she performed:
While Rachel is assertive she is shaken by doubt. She could present the utmost determination with a sense of the edges of doubt getting into the center.
But in her life the way she was determined to assert her individuality caused her deep misgivings which, instead of wanting to understand, she saw as weakness. Through her artistry she had rescued the Comedie Francais from failure, but she used this to feel she had a right to great special privileges other members of the company resented. A child of the people, with a love for Napoleon Bonaparte, she was also greedy for money and glory. It was said she “surrounded herself with inferior casts to enhance her own performance.”
And there are instances where her jealousy of another actress caused her to be mean. She broke permanently with Samson, to whom she owed so much, for teaching another actress as he had taught her, and with Alfred de Musset for writing a play for someone else. I’m sure she felt driven, as I know a woman can, without understanding why. How she needed to see what her true individuality came from!
Rachel once said to the playwright Ernest Legouve:
What would you say if I revealed my inner thoughts to you? You admire me, I believe. Well, I assure you there is a Rachel in me ten times superior to the Rachel whom you know. …Ah, if only I had….lived a better life! What an artist I should have been in that case! When I think of it such a regret steals over me….
IV. Individuality and “What Opposes Love”
The play in which Rachel had her finest artistic triumph is Racine’s Phèdre, the role in which we see her in this early photograph. Phèdre, Queen of Athens, and wife of Theseus, is consumed by passion for her husband’s son, Hippolytus.
Eli Siegel wrote of Phedre in TRO #150, “What Opposes Love?” some of the greatest literary criticism in the world, and necessary knowledge for the lives of men and women. “Phèdre,” he writes, “has been sympathized with a long time….The anguished depths in her have been given nobility….Yet contempt nestles somewhere amid magnificence and heartbreak.” There is this line of Racine describing Phèdre: “Un desordre eternal regne dans son esprit”—in Mr. Siegel’s translation: “A disorder, eternal, rules in her mind.” Mr. Siegel writes:
Since in untrue love, what matters to us is the kind of victory we may have over reality we may have by having a person do as we wish, we do not think well of ourselves because of our feeling. Consequently, Phedre, while despising nearly everything else, despises herself.
One of the things making Rachel’s portrayal of Phèdre great was that she felt and had the courage to present the evil in Phèdre. George Henry Lewes described her portrayal this way:
In the second act, where Phèdre declares her passion to Hippolyte, Rachel was transcendent. She subtly contrived to indicate that her passion was a diseased passion, fiery and irresistible, yet odious to her and to him….her manner was fierce and rapid, as if the thoughts were crowding on her brain in tumult….and such was the amazing variety and compass of her expression that when she quitted the stage she left us quivering with…excitement….Whoever saw Rachel play Phèdre may be pardoned if he doubt whether he will ever see such acting again.
Rachel herself wrote in her copy of Racine, words which have that gratitude and respect which is fulfillment for the self:
Oh my sweet Racine, it is in your masterpieces that I recognize the heart of woman! I shape my own to your noble poetry. If the lyre of my soul does not always weep with your harmonies divine, it is that admiration leaves my whole being in ecstacy.
In wanting to “shape” her heart to Racine’s “noble poetry” she was looking for that study we are so fortunate to be engaged in now—the Aesthetic Realism study of how our lives can be like art, a oneness of opposites. This is what Katherine Martin is learning, and what every woman has the right to know.
First presented in a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City.