The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Kind of Imagination?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the first part of Imagination—It Gathers, by Eli Siegel. This lecture of June 1971 is from a series, magnificent and definitive, that he was giving at the time on the subject of imagination. He spoke and wrote on imagination often, and he is the philosopher to explain something never understood before: Aesthetic Realism shows there are two kinds of imagination, and shows the criterion for each, the distinction between them. Humanity needs, mightily, to know that distinction.

What makes some imagination valuable, life-strengthening, beautiful, even artistically great? And what makes another kind ugly, weakening, stupid, viciously hurtful? There is, for example, the imagination of Shakespeare. Through it there came to be characters who—whether good or evil—are grandly immortal: Juliet, for instance, and Iago; Viola, Hamlet, and Lady Macbeth. What is the fundamental difference between the Shakespeare imagination, with its made-up persons and actions, and the imagination of a politician who makes up and puts forth lies? Or the imagination of two high school girls who plot how to make another girl look ridiculous via social media?

The All-Important Difference

The fundamental distinction between bad imagination and good, Aesthetic Realism explains, is this: Bad imagination is impelled by, and has as its purpose, contempt for the world. Good imagination—whatever the material—is impelled by, and has as its purpose, respect for the world. Sometimes that respect for reality is so deep and full, delicate and powerful, that the result is art, including art of the highest kind.

This principle of Aesthetic Realism is true of imagination: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The chief opposites in imagination, Mr. Siegel showed, are the main opposites in everyone’s life: self and world. In all imagination, we use ourselves to do something with an instance of the world. We are always imagining: we meet something in the outside world and do something to it in our minds. And always in what we do is what Mr. Siegel speaks of in the lecture now being serialized: we gather; we put one thing together with other things.

The Imagination That Is Cruelty

In chapter 5 of his Self and World, titled “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics,” Mr. Siegel writes:

We all of us have pictures of the world in our minds—and these pictures are of imagination; the beauty and rightness of these pictures depend on how much we can see the world as what it is.

Imagination, and what and how it gathers, has been central to all the kindness and cruelty in history. For example, racism and all prejudice are forms of imagination—ugly imagination. You take an instance of reality, somebody who seems different from you—maybe a man passing on the street, or a little girl sitting at a classroom desk. And you use yourself to do something to that instance of reality, that human being: you join to him or her various sleazy, mean, false ideas and pictures. This joining, this gathering, is imagination that does not hope to “see the world as what it is.” It is imagination driven by contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”

And there is that matter, tremendous across our land: economics, how jobs are had, money is made, things are produced, sold, purchased. At the basis of any economy is imagination-as-gathering. For instance: a certain product is thought of, imagined, had in mind. And thought gathers together with this product the things that will be involved in creating and selling it, including people who will make it, people who will buy it, possible expenditures, possible income. This imagination, this gathering of thought, will be either contemptuous or respectful, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly.

Economics for centuries has largely been run in terms of the profit motive. And by definition, by its very name, the profit motive impels one to think about one’s fellow humans and the world on this basis: They’re for me to use for my personal profit; I should squeeze as much money as possible for myself from these people, items, procedures—pay workers as little as possible; spend as little as possible on materials and safety measures; charge as high a price as possible.

In 1970, Eli Siegel showed that this ugly motive as an engine for economic activity has become irreparably inefficient. So today the nation’s wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people and increasingly Americans are becoming poorer. He made clear that the one way economics will now succeed is by having a different basis, and this basis is in the following question: What does a person deserve by being a person? The asking of that question, deeply, pointedly, widely, in terms of every aspect of economics, will be an imaginative asking—a terrifically practical asking. Accompanying the question is another ethical and aesthetic one, a profoundly American question, which Americans long to have be the basis of our economy: How can I express myself, be fully myself, and simultaneously be useful to other people, strengthen them, bring out the best in them?

It Came from a Kind of Imagination

Lately, people throughout the world have been much affected by an instance, flagrant yet representative, of what a certain motive can do. I am referring to the fire in London last month, in the high-rise building called Grenfell Tower. On June 14, the 24-storey, 129-unit apartment block became a blazing inferno. What has been seen is that the cladding panels used in the renovation of this building (and in many similar London buildings) contained highly flammable material. A company knowingly sold that cladding, and a company doing the renovation and persons responsible for financing it chose that cladding—though they all knew a much safer product was available.

Further, the conflagration began as a fire in a refrigerator. The back of that refrigerator was plastic—highly flammable—rather than metal, which would have been fire-resistant. The choice to produce, sell, buy, and install very flammable refrigerators was made—by companies and by persons of business involved with the Grenfell and other buildings. They made that choice even though the London Fire Brigade had been urgently warning about the dangers of the plastic backing.

I’m writing about the fire because it arose from the use of imagination by one person after another. Imagination has to do with value: a person gathers together aspects of a situation, and possibilities, and asks, Among these possibilities, what is most valuable for me? It’s clear that one company after another, one person after another, decided: making as much profit as possible for themselves was more important than whether other people lived or died. And so, homes and human beings were burnt to ashes on a June day.

The Imagination We Want

People do not know that in their everyday lives they’re in a fight between two kinds of imagination. And without realizing it, they have imaginings that are related to bad imagination anywhere, including in economics. A person, ever so often, thinks of others not to understand who they truly are but in terms of: How can I have this person make me important? How can I show I’m superior to him? How can I manage him—get him to do what I want? Then, even if one succeeds, one feels agitated, empty, angry, ashamed. People are thirsty to have, in every aspect of life, the imagination that is in art: the imagination that is the desire to know—to be ourselves through seeing other things and people richly, deeply, vividly. Aesthetic Realism can teach us how to have it. It is the imagination Eli Siegel himself had, with the greatest beauty, all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Imagination—It Gathers

By Eli Siegel

Note. As in previous lectures in this series, Mr. Siegel uses lines from Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars to comment on what imagination does.

As I go on dealing with imagination, the bases of Aesthetic Realism, the things that were in motion in order to make it what it is, are being looked at again. It was many years ago that I felt what went on in the strangest aspects of mind had something to do with arithmetic, and with the most ordinary thought and the most customary motions, and these all had to do with each other. For example, walking is doubling and division; it’s multiplication, because you may take many steps. The quantitative aspect of the world has also been present in the history of art. A most taking notion of this is in the fact that telling as narrative is the same word as the telling that means counting.

Most people would agree that imagination gathers. But the things that are in the gathering, which I’ve somewhat enumerated—that it multiplies, that it doubles, divides, adds, repeats, subtracts, and continues—all have to do with mind as such. When mind goes wrong it does, among other things, add wrongly and subtract wrongly. The way it adds can make for sadness and disorder and delirium, and so can the way it subtracts. Consequently, to get some notion of how mind uses arithmetic in its motions is necessary.

Imagination Is Always Self & World

The material in imagination is always a combination, as I have said, of something outside an individual plus the way the individual sees it. Those two are always present. All imagination is both impersonal and personal. You begin with something—as, say, I begin with a spoon. And then I think of a crater in a volcano. A spoon is not a crater, but a spoon goes down and so does a crater. Then you can think of a bomb crater. You can think of a child with a little spade making a crater in the sand. And you can find a crater in a skull. And the crater in the skull is related to the crater in the spoon. It’s not the same; but there is a constant thing in this world, the going in a curved way from a surface to a depth and then the coming up again. That is what a spoon does, a crater does, the hollow of one’s hand does. It’s a certain motion; it happens quite often in art. It can be called, if one wishes, the humiliated semi-ellipse.

One can ask: does this motion have to do with imagination? When one sees, in many surprising fashions, that it does, there comes to be a feeling that a motion of imagination is like the motion of the world, and that whatever one’s own mind does is like the motion of the world, which always has its quantitative aspects. All motion is geometrical as it goes through space. A line is straight; it curves; it bends; goes backward; rises—all these things have to do with geometry. Geometry is the saying that a form in space is quantitative. And everything imaginative has what geometry has.

An Irish Playwright Gathers

In our looking at imagination through Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, we’ve come to nearly the end of act 2:

Fluther. God, it’s a relief to get rid o’ that crowd. Women is terrible when they start to fight. There’s no holdin’ them back. (To the Covey) Are you goin’ to have anything?

In the old-time elocution books, you’d have little things that look like the pattering of geometry—a line going up, a line going down, a curve, a continuation—and all of this had to do with inflection. Inflection, like paper, can rise, fall, or stay where it is. In the first of these sentences of Fluther there is a rising inflection. “To get rid” and “o’ that crowd” are anapests, and the anapest always rises. It’s two short syllables followed by a long. Everything in art is a kind of gathering, and an anapest is a gathering. An anapest is a constant mother that gets two short syllables together with a long one and says, You stay there. But an actor could say “it’s a relief” and make for a feeling of a straight line.

The fact that there is a gathering should be countered by the question, A gathering of what? In some art the idea was that you could arrange peanut shells and paper clips and old buttons and other objects hard to name, and make something artistic. Any things can be gathered. You can relate buttons and orange seeds and chopped off pinheads and fragments of earrings and make something of it. Or you can have nothing but fragments of earrings. This has to do with continuity, doubling, and repetition, which are very big things in art.

In the lines of Fluther I just read, we have a gathering of sounds—sounds that have more shape than usual syllables, because syllables as such are not yet meanings. A pig utters syllables: a grunt is a syllable. A howl is a syllable. A yell is a continuation of a syllable. And what a sea lion does is made up of mist and syllable.

Anything in the way of art is a gathering, as any object is a gathering of atoms, molecules, elements, electrons, and some other things. Anything you look at is a gathering, and gathering is a more colloquial word for composition. But the way a thing can be gathered is what we are looking at.

There Is a Sentence

“Women is terrible when they start to fight.” Here we have that gathering which is a sentence. This sentence is ungrammatical, but “Women is terrible when they start to fight” has a certain kind of music. It’s not the best in the world; it’s not the music of “Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.”* But the sentence is pretty musical. There’s a gathering in it of ways of seeing the world. First we have the noun: women. Then Fluther gets ungrammatical: “Women is terrible.” It should be “are terrible,” and singular and plural quite obviously have to do with gathering. The verb is is an omnium gatherer: that is, it has everything. Is is the most unifying and miscellaneous idea. Everything comes under it. At the same time, it is in quiet immeasurable abstraction. And it has a plural.

The big thing here, however, is that there is an adjective, terrible, and adjectives took a long time to be thought about. An adjective is an attribute, and, as Locke and Spinoza said, and Descartes too, an object is a gathering of attributes. A white pitcher is a gathering of weight, shape, color, and form. Every pitcher is supposed to have a handle. If it doesn’t it’s a fake pitcher. A handle is one of the things that differentiate it from a jar or just a container. So a pitcher consists of attributes. Everything has attributes. An adjective is an attribute caught by itself. Lots of things can be attributed to nouns, and when you attribute something to a noun, an adjective results; here, the adjective terrible.

A sentence is a gathering of ways of seeing the world. It’s been said that a sentence can be a gathering of eight ways of seeing the world, which are called “parts of speech.” So after “Women is terrible,” we have that construction “when they start to fight.” We have five words modifying one; that is, “when they start to fight” is an adverbial clause modifying the adjective terrible. One could show that some writers are fonder than others of adverbial clauses modifying adjectives. You can have the adverbial clause modifying an adverb: He went fast when he felt like it. When he felt like it is an adverbial clause modifying the adverb fast.

What Is Gathered?

A large thing to see about gathering in imagination is: what are the things that are gathered. Every art is a different way of gathering things. A film is a way of gathering what are called shots. A photograph uses a gathering already prepared, perhaps by the municipality or God, and you were supposed to see it. A pussycat, for example, is lying on the step of a law building, and that makes for a photograph. Or you find a little baby is asleep on a thing called The Complete Works of Tillotson, a folio. There’s a gathering there. And when there’s a gathering, there’s a relation among the things gathered. As soon as you think of the relation among the things gathered, you get to that other aspect of imagination which is division. All imagination is multiplication, division, subtraction, addition, and continuing. There are other ways of putting it.

For example, there is repetition. John Millington Synge might have said, Women is terrible when they start to fight—yes, my friend, when they start to fight. And instead of “There’s no holdin’ them back,” O’Casey could have said, No, there’s no holdin’ them back—that’s one thing I’m sure of—when women start to fight there’s no holdin’ them back.

No in “There’s no holdin’ them back” is part of the gathering. No is a word different from holding.

A Question Is a Gathering

Then: “Are you goin’ to have anything?” Anytime there’s a question asked, you do different things with space and sound, and with your throat for that matter. You cannot say “Are you goin’ to have anything?” in the same way as It’s all over now or We shall see in a moment. There would be something wrong with saying We shall see in a moment?

A gathering, then, has a certain shape. And in the criticism of art, one studies the shape that a gathering makes. If this sounds technical, I mean it to. I shall be, if it can be endured, unrelentingly technical at certain times.

* Alfred Tennyson, “The Lotos-Eaters,” line 51