Imagination, & Humanity’s Pettiness & Might
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue serializing the great lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave on June 9, 1971. As we publish the 4th section, I am very glad to state again this fact, so important for the life of every person, and for how our nation and the world itself fare: There are, Aesthetic Realism has shown, two kinds of imagination, one good and one bad. Good imagination, though it may be ever so wild, though it may deal with ugliness, always arises from respect for the world. Bad imagination arises from contempt, which Mr. Siegel described as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
All imagination, whether in art or life, consists of a particular mind doing something with what it meets, the outside world. And having contempt for the world is the sleaziest, stupidest, meanest thing a person can do, though it’s immensely popular. Contempt is the beginning of every human cruelty.
In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about something he shows is central in imagination: gathering, the bringing of things together. And an urgent (also lovely) question for everyone is: how do we bring things together in our minds—respectfully or contemptuously?
In Our Lives
One reason the subject of gathering matters so much is that there’s a terrific tendency in people to keep aspects of their lives apart. Millions of people have a different self when they’re with, say, their relatives, from the self they show their co-workers; then, another self with their friends; a different one still with their “significant other.” And they have a self unseen by anyone, which is just theirs, regal and alone. We divide rather than join aspects of our lives because, for one thing, we don’t know how to join them—but also because we feel we can manage people better that way. Something in us feels, without articulating it, that if we relate the aspects and people in our life and are one unified self with them all, we’ll be pinned down, not have the power we want. Yet this division makes us feel agitated, empty, ashamed.
Then, there is a contemptuous gathering that goes on constantly: a horrible, inaccurate lumping together—of things or people. Something bad happens, and we use it to feel the whole world is a mess: we make objects, happenings, books, human beings, less important than they are; we take the vivid, kind meaning out of things; we make the many things and people of the world one wash of disappointment because something or someone has given us pain.
Further, all prejudice is a hideous gathering: we rob millions of people of their individualities and turn them into one “type,” whom we look down on. Meanwhile, we also separate them: we do not see them as gathered with us in that great composition called Humanity. All this is completely opposed to art, because true art in any field shows that things—notes, shapes, words, happenings—have to do with other things, livingly, stirringly, even as each is itself.
The Laughable & the Grand
In the lecture we’re serializing Mr. Siegel has been using as text Sean O’Casey’s 1926 drama The Plough and the Stars. He’s not discussing it as a play, but is showing that imagination-as-gathering is in its statements, phrases, sometimes in an individual word—like exchange or tapping.
Meanwhile, just 11 weeks earlier, Mr. Siegel gave a lecture great as literary criticism and definitive about O’Casey. It was about another O’Casey play: Juno and the Paycock. Now, in the present section of Imagination—It Gathers, he refers to the central idea of that earlier lecture. Because it’s an idea so vital, an explanation so needed—as a means of placing what’s published here I’m going to quote from the talk on Juno and the Paycock. On March 24, 1971 Mr. Siegel said:
The talk today, dealing chiefly with Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, I have called “Words Are Everywhere: Comedy and Tragedy Are Two of These.” The subject is exceedingly important: what is the relation between man’s cheerfulness and his sadness, his tragedy and his comedy, evil and good? People separate the two, but the unconscious has always wanted to put these everyday opposites together: why do I feel so bad?; why do I want to be so cheerful?
O’Casey was taken in a notable way by the desire that humanity has had, that drama has had, to show that sorrow and cheerfulness are one. The way in Juno and the Paycock the ridiculous, the tawdry, the shoddy mingle with the grand, and the laughable with the unendurable, is notable....
The question is, what is the relation of th[e] comedy [in this play] to the tragedy? It’s not just comic relief. It’s too inherent in the play....
Aesthetic Realism does say that the only good sense in the world is aesthetics. It says that beauty is the only thing that takes in the tragedy and comedy of life, its ridiculousness and its tearfulness, and composes them.
What Mr. Siegel is explaining has to do tremendously with imagination as gathering—because a matter that’s huge and mainly painful in everyone’s life is: what kind of gathering or composition do we make of our laughter and tears, our sense of the grand, the immensely serious, and “the ridiculous, the tawdry”? Other critics, of course, have noticed that both comedy and tragedy are in O’Casey’s works, but they haven’t seen how deeply these opposites are one there. In fact, John Gassner, in his Treasury of the Theatre, writes of Juno and the Paycock, “Perhaps the comedy and tragedy that jostle each other in the script detract from each other.” And critics haven’t seen why what O’Casey does with those opposites matters. The reason it matters is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars both have to do with mighty events. The first is set in 1922, during the Irish Civil War. Then there is The Plough and the Stars, the title of which refers to the flag of the Irish Citizen Army. In the section Mr. Siegel looks at here, a passionate meeting is taking place on a Dublin street in preparation for what will be the Easter Uprising, April 1916, against England’s brutal ownership of Ireland. Mr. Siegel points to O’Casey’s bringing together the enormous feeling of people as they hear a speech in behalf of Irish freedom—with the comic, silly, petty quarreling of several persons in a pub. This is O’Casey’s imagination gathering: gathering the pettiness of reality and its might—and making form of them.
In life though, as Mr. Siegel said, people divide these opposites. When they feel something is serious they’re usually not lighthearted, but grim. And when they joke and are light, it’s so often in behalf of contempt: to lessen, not honor, the meaning of people, things, the world. This rift is everyday, but it makes people despise themselves deeply.
Another form of the division between might and lowness is: Every person has seen him- or herself as the most significant being there is, the center of the universe. And the same person has called her- or himself stupid, foolish, mean. We do not make a composition of such feelings; we shuttle distressfully between them.
I am grateful without limit to have learned that for the opposites of the serious and the light to be one in us, we need to have the same purpose with both: the purpose to see truly; to see meaning in things; to know and like the world. That was Eli Siegel’s purpose always. He honored the largeness of things, and had that grandeur all the time. It was there even as he was humorous—and he could be immensely humorous, light, even rollickingly, beautifully funny.