Emotions in Life and in the Films of Euzhan Palcy
By Alice Bernstein
Euzhan Palcy, the first woman of African descent to direct a Hollywood studio film, MGM's A Dry White Season (1989), has earned international stature as a film director. She has received numerous awards including the Chevalier Dans L'Ordre National Du Merit presented in 1994 by French President Francois Mitterand, and the Sojourner Truth Award, presented by Roger Ebert at the 2001Cannes Film Festival. I'm moved to write about Euzhan Palcy in relation to what I've learned on the great subject of emotions in life and in art from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by poet and critic Eli Siegel.
The emotions we are hoping for—thrilling, lasting, pride-giving emotions—arise from respect for reality, wanting to know and be fair to it. But there is another hope, to be important by lessening meaning: this is contempt, the ugliest, most harmful emotion. Our choice for contempt in everyday life, Aesthetic Realism teaches, makes people miserable and cruel. And globally contempt causes all economic injustice, racism and war. In the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #188, Mr. Siegel wrote:
The purpose of life, I learned, is to have true, ever greater emotions for people and things, that make us proud. And every emotion can be for respect: we can have a beautiful anger against injustice, lovely indifference to vanity, precise hatred for cruelty, true scorn for cheapness, including in ourselves. In his magnificent lecture, We Are Emotion, Eli Siegel explained the logic of emotion in this definition: "Emotion is always a yes and no of self, shown through the body." The crucial thing is: do we smile, glare, tremble, blush, yawn, to say yes to respect or contempt?
I learned that because we are our emotions—and our choices affect every bodily cell—the one way to take care of ourselves is to honestly respect the world. I am proud to speak about my life and films by Euzhan Palcy—about sugar cane workers in Martinique and the deadly racism of apartheid in South Africa, to show the urgency and grandeur of Aesthetic Realism's explanation of emotion.
Emotion: True and Untrue
As a girl in Brooklyn, I was in a fight between true and untrue emotion. Like all children, I made decisions about the world based on how I saw my parents. I unknowingly used their intensity, both about what they liked and what they didn't, to see emotion as messy and undignified. They liked having a good time on trips to the country and picnics at Plum Beach, but they also argued a lot, usually about money which was scarce. The way my parents were angry frightened me: the color left my father's face and my mother's features were distorted as tears fell on her cheeks. My mother hugged me close when she was pleased, but when she was angry she would glare and strike out. My father would pound on the table to make a point.
I felt my emotions were too much for me, and chose to hide them and feel superior to people who didn't. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that my feeling that people weren't good enough to see my emotions, was contempt, and hurt my mind. Very early I was silent and still—no matter what was happening, even at a party or on a merry-go-round. Sometimes my parents were frantic with worry about my immobility. In The Right Of, #155, Mr. Siegel describes this ugly state of mind and body:
The place where I had my biggest, happiest emotions from respect for the world was in school. I loved reading and geography and was excited in the second grade to learn that the sun, sky, and land are in every country of the world, yet how different they looked in Alaska and Hawaii. I liked drawing and writing about Eskimos and Polynesians. But face-to-face with another child or adult I acted placid and cool. Mr. Siegel with kind, exact humor later described me as like "the white poodle knowing nothing." Children saw that if you wanted to have a good time, Alice wasn't the girl for you.
I learned that every self is ethical and we punish ourselves for having contempt. Seeing the world as an enemy to hide from made me lonely and fearful. When I saw that my stillness made people uncomfortable, I had a victory which I later learned was contempt. At times when my mother felt bad and apologized for yelling at me, I would have no part of her and acted unmoved. I was ashamed to be so unforgiving, but I couldn't stop. Trying to deaden myself to other people's feelings, made me less alive. Sometimes I couldn't respond at all, and my mother would have to shake me.
This choice for indifference, far from being passive, is active contempt. It is the state of mind, I would learn from Aesthetic Realism, of someone who ignores a homeless person's suffering; an employer who exploits another's labor without respecting him; a head of state who calmly orders missiles to be fired and bombs dropped. I learned that no matter how coolly a person shows contempt, she despises herself. This is so hopeful because our shame is not imposed by an enemy, but our judgment of ourselves. Aesthetic Realism taught me that my deepest hope, and everyone's, is to honestly respect the world, no holds barred.
I thank reality with all my heart for allowing my family to get through the hideous press boycott and to learn from Aesthetic Realism how to have the large, fair, deep, kind, proud emotions of respect that all people long for. "The purpose of criticism," Eli Siegel writes in The Right Of, #176, "is to cause in man the emotion that accompanies a reasoned like of the world and respect for it. And when we like the world and see it as having meaning, gratitude and respect are ours. These emotions, gratitude and respect, are the hopes of man."
The honor of my life is that I heard this mind-strengthening criticism. I felt understood to my depths when Eli Siegel asked me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, "Alice, are you ashamed of how much you can repress your feeling?" With tremendous relief and gratitude, I said yes. Mr. Siegel explained:
In Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes my family heard what every human mind and heart longs for: criticism of our contempt and encouragement to respect the world unlimitedly. As we learned that all art and science—French drama, botany, spirituals, grammar, Dutch portrait painting—arose from emotions of respect by the people of the world, my family became happier and kinder.
As a teenager, I liked the world more and made friends. I liked being in motion through ballroom dancing and later in Afro-Cuban dance. Yet, when Mr. Siegel asked me in a lesson, "What have you got into a radiant tizzy about?" I couldn't think of anything. In the field of love I wanted to affect men without respecting them; for them to be moved while I was unmoved. I tried to make aloofness look dreamy and mysterious. The boys I was attracted to were like me, having, as Mr. Siegel explained, "real Scandinavian melancholy," with "a tendency to be creepy, sad, and pick petals by the lonely, dark brook" Love, Aesthetic Realism teaches, is using another person to like the world. My idea of love was really harmful: in being smooth and pretending, I stripped a man of his meaning and hid myself. A man was a painful mystery to me, but I also didn't know who was this Alice I thought he should care for. Because contempt smothers great emotion, true passion is impossible.
Emotion Is Always a Oneness of Opposites
I want women to know the criticism I am grateful I heard that encouraged integrity and enabled me to love. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel said:
I learned this wonderful fact: when our purpose is to respect people by showing our emotions honestly, as others know us truly, we have the great experience of finding out who we are.
In 1962, when photographer, David Bernstein began to study Aesthetic Realism, the vigorous way he expressed gratitude to Mr. Siegel for the large, good changes in his life and art, thrilled me. When we spoke, the energetic, sweet way David didn't accept stingy, muffled emotion from me, woke me up, strengthened and enlivened me. I love David for sustaining my true emotions about Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel, in the 44 years of our fortunate, happy marriage.
As a young wife I showed the dangers Mr. Siegel described in all wives: "keeping their woes too private or pouring them on too thick." My husband humorously criticized my tendency to give in to "a fit of blandness." In a lesson Mr. Siegel explained:
Yes! How grateful I am to learn how to be a better study; to change a false, muted version of myself into increasingly open, animated, sincere expression with all of me behind it.
As Eli Siegel made possible true, large, emotion in me, I am so sorry I was angry and resented my ever-increasing respect for him.I look forward to showing all my life what I wish I had shown to Mr. Siegel: how happy respect makes me; how grateful I am for emotions new in history: the joy of honestly liking the world, of being comprehended. I feel honored to continue my education in classes taught by Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss. Every year my emotions about my husband and all people, objects, and forces in reality, are larger, subtler, kinder. Learning to respect the world and to show it is the most scientific, joyous education on earth!