What Makes Imagination Kind or Cruel?
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third installment of the wonderful 1971 lecture we are serializing, Imagination—It Gathers, by Eli Siegel. And here too is part of a paper by Edward Green, from a public seminar of last month titled “A Man’s Imagination: What Makes It Good or Bad?”
Dr. Green—composer, musicologist, professor at the Manhattan School of Music—is writing about the greatness of Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of imagination. In all the history of thought, it is Eli Siegel who showed there are two kinds of imagination, and these arise from the two big desires at war in everyone: the desire to respect the world, and the desire to have contempt—“get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” And Dr. Green writes courageously (also humorously) about something that has tormented artists, and that they have not understood: an artist as person may use his imagination in a way that’s fundamentally at odds with the respectful imagination from which art comes. Through contempt, people weaken their minds and lives every day. And through contempt, artists have also hindered, even stifled, the art in themselves.
In the section of the lecture included here, Mr. Siegel uses an early 20th-century poem to show that imagination, which gathers—which brings many things together to make a unity, a one—is doing what the world itself does. We see this Aesthetic Realism principle in motion: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.”
The Imaginative Basis of America
As a prelude, I am going to comment briefly on imagination as good and bad, and as gathering, in relation to something of tremendous immediacy: the US Constitution.
There is the Preamble, which is beautiful no matter what happens in politics. This Preamble is clearly about gathering: “We the People,” it begins. And it says it’s “We the People” who “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” So we’re told from the start that the People in their manyness, seen as gathered together, are that which, or those who, have the right to say how a nation should be.
This idea—democracy, rule by the people—is a mighty result of imagination. Aside from a few instances, in ancient Greece and elsewhere, for most of the centuries of government in this world the idea that the people as a whole could rule their nation was seen as the maddest of fantasies. Then, as that imagining grew, it was seen as dangerous and treasonous. Yet in 1787 it was made the formal basis of our nation’s government.
Today in America, various persons still hate that idea, which Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; yet they feel they must give lip service to it even as they’d like to undermine it. (One way to undermine it is to stop certain people from voting.) Meanwhile, there’s a contemptuous imagining that impels economics in this land and has made for massive suffering: the hideous fantasy that it’s right for the wealth of the nation to belong principally to some people, not all.
Following “We the People of the United States” is the phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Union is a gathering word: it’s many (or at least two) become one. And to say something needs to be “more perfect” asks for imagination: the imagination to see what that greater perfection would be and what would make for it. The Constitution, the Preamble tells us, is the result of this imagination.
Another Kind of Imagination
There are fine things in the first article of the US Constitution, but there is also an instance of some of the vilest imagination in human history. It is immortalized in the “three-fifths clause.”
Article 1 is about Congress. And in Section 2 of it there’s a saying that the number of Representatives of each state will be based on the population of the state. But the question arose—what is population? The Southern states considered slaves property, to be bought, sold, treated any way one pleased. And to see another human being that way is horrible imagination. Meanwhile, now these states wanted as many seats in Congress as they could get, so they suddenly came to the imaginative idea that slaves should be counted as population while still being treated as not human. The North said no. There ensued the notorious compromise: for purposes of determining seats in Congress, three-fifths of the number of slaves in each state should be included in the state’s population count. This imaginative compromise was agreed to. Some say that had it not been, in 1787 the unstable conglomeration of states would not have stayed together as a nation.
It took a Civil War and the 13th and 14th amendments to undo what made for the three-fifths clause. And, though cancelled, it stands in its ugliness in the midst of a beautiful document: an immortal exemplification of the human viciousness of contempt. I see the existence of that clause as demanding now that each American be an honest critic of our own contempt, that we ask: how do I, like the slave holders of 1787, lessen other people in my mind, see them in terms of my own comfort and self-importance; and how ugly is this?
A Structure, Worth Fighting For, Is Imagined
The tripartite structure of the US government, put forth in the Constitution, came from good imagination. The idea was that the three branches, legislative, executive, and judiciary, be gathered in such a way—separate yet connected—that no single branch have excessive power over the nation. Of course, as with other fine things in US government, people have used ugly imagination to try to get around this structure, subvert it. Sometimes they’ve even succeeded. But not fully! Despite many scoundrels, that imaginative and kind composition, laid out in our Constitution and its amendments, is there.
To be fair to America and people, it is necessary to have the imagination, the seeing, based on respect. Through Aesthetic Realism, we can learn to have it.