How Do We Want to Imagine?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the important—also exciting and delightful—lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave in 1971. And here too is an article about imagination by architect and Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin. It’s from a paper he presented last month, at a public seminar titled “A Man’s Imagination: What Makes It Good or Bad?”
That title has in it something of the greatness of Aesthetic Realism. People haven’t known that imagination, with all its vast diversity, is of two kinds. Eli Siegel is the critic who showed it is, and made clear the distinction between these. There is the imagination which—even when it deals with the grotesque or ugly—is based on respect for the world. That is good imagination, good for the person having it and for humanity. The other imagination is based on contempt for the world; it is bad imagination, is always hurtful, and (as I wrote in the previous issue) is behind every human cruelty, from snobbishness to racism and fascism.
This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about every aspect of art and life, including imagination: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Imagination, Mr. Siegel showed, is always a joining of the biggest opposites in our lives, self and world. We take something from the outside world, and do something with it in our mind. (Even our imaginings about ourselves are about us in relation to what’s outside of us.) In a sense, our imagination changes the thing it deals with, and the changing includes what Mr. Siegel speaks of here: gathering. That is, through our mind we join this thing with other things; we also find things, sometimes very surprising, within it. If the imagining is good, what we do to the thing, how we change it, is in keeping with what it is: honors it, is true to it and the world.
These Tell of Imagination
As a prelude to the present section of Imagination—It Gathers and to Dale Laurin’s article, I am going to comment on four sentences by Eli Siegel from a much quoted work of his: Damned Welcome: Aesthetic Realism Maxims.
He wrote in many genres; but with Damned Welcome we have that genre in which few have done well: the brief yet rich, the charming yet deep, the playful yet exact form which is the maxim. (Besides Eli Siegel, the greatest writer of maxims is La Rochefoucauld; eminent too is Benjamin Franklin.) All the maxims in Damned Welcome are imaginative, in the truest and best sense. But some are also about aspects of imagination. That is so of the maxims I’ll quote. And I’ll comment a little on what they tell us about our subject, so central to art and everyone’s life. We can begin with one of the most popular maxims in the book:
A pessimist is a person who finds an oyster in a pearl. [Part 1, maxim 56]
We know it’s wonderful that a pearl is produced by and harbored in an oyster: its being there stands for the fact that the precious can be in something that seems not precious at all. However (and this is what the maxim is about), bad imagination can take a thing having wonder, loveliness, beauty, and arrange to wipe all that out, find some overriding amissness. The reason is: we’d like to feel anything that appears good is really a deception, so we can feel the only precious thing is us and we’re in a world not good enough for us. This is imagination driven by contempt. And here Mr. Siegel satirizes it in only 12 words!—playfully, musically, with a speed that’s also thoughtful and firm.
The next maxim I’ll quote describes a beautiful aspect of imagination:
We can say Here in 752, and There in this very year; Here in Nineveh, and There in Scranton. [Part 1, maxim 74]
A good deal of the history of art is in this maxim. That is, increasingly as the years passed, and very much in Romanticism, there was a seeing of the strange, the far off, including the distant past, as not just apart from oneself; and a seeing of the familiar as having wonder. This was and is imagination, and we need it—because people in their lives have felt that the strange and distant were only separate from them, were only “There”; and that what seemed ordinary and familiar—“this very year” and “Scranton”—did not have wonder, strangeness, the “There” quality. We want the art imagination, which says that the strange is close to us, and also that our hometown has mystery. Eli Siegel describes this fact—in prose that, itself, both is down-to-earth and has wonder.
A very different maxim with a related message is:
A story could be written about how a table wasn’t wiped, which could thrill no end: send the blood coursing swiftly through you. [Part 1, maxim 177]
The purpose of imagination—in art and life—is to find meaning in things, not take it away. How much meaning is in something that may not seem to have it at all? How much can the world stir us—not because we can conquer things or bend them to our wishes, but because we are seeing things truly? I love this maxim, both for what it says and how it says it: there is—not only in the statement but in its rhythm, its music—the oneness of factuality and excitement, definiteness and stirring motion.
False Love Is Bad Imagination
There is a wonderful maxim about the bad imagination that is so frequent in love:
The person he adored wasn’t she; the person doing the adoring wasn’t he: all this is not a reflection on adoration. [Part 2, maxim 126]
Because people have not liked the world, and not seen it as something lovingly to know, they haven’t really wanted to know a person they saw themselves as caring for. Instead, they’ve seen the loved one as: 1) someone with whom to put the world aside, and 2) someone who will make me more important than the world itself.
When you use somebody to lessen the world, you cannot want to know the person, because every individual is a representative of the world. Each person is composed of reality’s opposites. Everyone is also a gathering of all the things he or she has to do with, and those things are infinite. But people pick someone out of the world and use their imagination to create a person around aspects of him or her they’ve chosen to see. So: “The person he adored wasn’t she.”
Further, “the person doing the adoring wasn’t he”—because the deepest thing in us, who we really are, wants to see what’s true about people and the world. And somewhere we know it when we’re a phony, as to love or anything else.
Aesthetic Realism’s logic on the subject of love is new, kind, magnificent—and because of it, real love has come to people’s lives. But in the maxim I just quoted, Mr. Siegel is humorously succinct. It’s in three parts. The first two are sharp (though the sharpness murmurs a little). The third part is very hopeful: it tells us that love is real, no matter how much people are untrue to it—“all this is not a reflection on adoration.”
I could quote other maxims from Damned Welcome. But I’m very glad to quote these—by Eli Siegel, whose imagination, great, kind, free, exact, was the same as his love of truth.