The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Is Life a Gathering?

By Eli Siegel

There is a poem of John Masefield in which life is described as a gathering. And though I don’t see it as true poetry, it should be known. It’s the getting of chemistry into a sonnet. It’s called “What Am I, Life?”

What am I, life? A thing of watery salt

Held in cohesion by unresting cells,

Which work they know not why, which never halt,

Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.

I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin

A world which uses me as I use them;

Nor do I know which end or which begin

Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,

I answer to the vast, as wave by wave

The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,

Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,

Or the great sun comes forth: this myriad I

Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

This was once very popular. Is life, like art, a gathering?

“What am I, life? A thing of watery salt / Held in cohesion by unresting cells.” The word cohesion belongs to physics and chemistry, but it’s related to the belletristic word coherence.

“Which work they know not why”: as with art sometimes, the cause is not seen clearly. “Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.” He says one doesn’t know how this came to be, and that is quite so. “Master” has a capital m, which shows that Masefield is a little religious.

About the cells: “I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin / A world....” There are words that make for unity out of manyness or out of conflict. One of these is spin. However, I do object to the word spin here. I don’t think cells should be seen as spinning something—spinning “a world.”

“A world which uses me as I use them.” That is good. We use the world and the world uses us.

“Nor do I know which end or which begin / Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.” Well, that’s asking too much—to know which cell you should like! The best thing to do is to like all of them and hope they like each other.

“So, like a marvel in a marvel set...” That’s a little too mechanical. Still, one is a wonder and is in the world which is a wonder. And he responds to the world: “I answer to the vast, as wave by wave / The sea of air goes over....”

He says oneself is a composition that is myriad: “This myriad I / Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.” The hair on one’s skin is a composition; the skin is, and it can tingle.

So this poem gives something of the idea of the beginning of life or the world as gathering, and that much the poem has use.

Imagination, Good & Bad

By Edward Green

Imagination, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is good when its purpose is to be just to reality. In Self and World Eli 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. [P. 146]

Once, I hardly associated imagination with “the world is.” Growing up, I assumed the everyday world was mainly dull. Meanwhile, I felt school was exciting because there were new things to learn. I liked using my imagination to picture events like the Boston Tea Party or the first Thanksgiving, or envision the characters in the stories we read. I liked learning how fish could evolve into amphibians, or dinosaurs into birds. But when it came to the people around me—my sisters, parents, friends—I thought I already had the complete picture: there was nothing to learn about them, and they weren’t going to evolve into anything. I was using my imagination to feel people were beneath me, so I could be superior. This was contempt, and it had its results.

Imagination Is a Drama of Self & World

I’ve learned that imagination is always a compound of the thing we’re thinking about and who we are. When imagination is honest, the way self and world, self and object, meet makes for respect. “Where imagination is wrong,” Mr. Siegel explains, it is “because we feel that giving everything the object has to it, will interfere with our own comfort, prerogative, importance.”

This was true about me. I assumed that whatever was on my mind was something other people—even strangers at a McDonald’s—should pay attention to and be impressed by. I entered a room thinking I should be the focus, and saw a conversation as a monologue.

I unconsciously equated getting to know people with their being impressed by me and what I was saying. Learning about their thoughts and feelings was not something I warmed to, and I didn’t think anyone’s mind was as interesting as my own.

Right after the sentence I just quoted, Mr. Siegel continues: “We don’t have junctions with the world; we have collisions or evasions or quarrels.” That, to a large degree, was my life: evasions, collisions, quarrels. For example, all through high school my thoughts—like those of other boys—were very much about girls, but I was deathly afraid actually to call someone up for a date. I pictured not only immediate rejection, but also being the object later of scornful gossip in the school cafeteria.

Though I barely talked to these young women, I arrogantly assumed I knew what they were thinking and that it was mocking of me and unkind. The truth was that however they may have been, mockery and unkindness were in my mind. I had many daydreams about those girls. I’d picture them crowding around a piano, looking wide-eyed as I played, and then calling up their boyfriends to say they were through—they’d found me! I also had many daydreams of a more vulgar kind, in which I was secretly masterful.

The way my mind was—both haughty and fearful—is explained in this sentence from a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel:

A person who wants to manhandle...the world by making it altogether his own, by saying “You’ve got to be my way,” will punish himself by getting all kinds of fears. [TRO 555]

Learning about the cause-and-effect relation between my contemptuous use of imagination and my feeling ill at ease among people, including women, was a tremendous relief.

I Learn about Good & Bad Imagination

It makes a huge difference to your life to know that two kinds of imagination work in you. It gives you a chance to choose which really represents you.

I wanted very much to be able to write music that expressed my feelings and would move people. I took my study very seriously. At the same time, I was competitive. In my senior year in high school I heard there was a freshman who was also writing music. As teachers talked about him, inwardly I burned: I felt I was being robbed of my importance. And I’m ashamed to say that when he showed me his compositions, I tried to make him unsure of himself. (Fortunately, I didn’t succeed: he went on in his studies.)

Just two years later, while at Oberlin Conservatory, I found myself dried out, unable to write any more music. I was desperate. I felt I had lost the best thing in me.

Not long after, on a trip to New York, I began to study Aesthetic Realism in consultations and, to my eternal gratitude, I learned what had stopped me from composing. Music, my consultants showed me, represented respect for the world. Composing it meant showing myself, my feelings, to other people, and I wanted to hide from people. I would talk a lot—about what I was doing, about the books I was reading, the things I had seen, my opinions on all sorts of matters, political and otherwise—but just what I felt, including my doubts of myself, I kept secret.

I was asked: did I think anyone was good enough to know me? This surprised me. I had often sobbed privately about how misunderstood I was, how lonely. Now I saw I had a motive in feeling that way: to ratify my sense that people and the world were not good enough for me. My consultants asked, did I think my purpose in hiding from people and my purpose to show myself in composing music were contradictory? And they asked, “How long do you think a person can have two completely opposed purposes and not have them collide?”

I’m enormously grateful to have seen that my desire to be superior to other people was a weight around my neck rather than a crown on my head! Because I learned to criticize my contempt, and learned what composing music is really for—to see and show large meaning in the world of things and people, be fair to the world—something I was afraid I’d lost forever was restored to me and given new life. I’m able to write music. And I have lasting friendships, and a rich happy marriage I cherish with Carrie Wilson, whom I love very much.

I want everyone to know how kind Eli Siegel’s imagination was. His desire to know was unlimited. He had the philosophic power to see the structure of reality, and the warmth of heart never to stop thinking about the feelings of people—those close to him and those in history.

In the first class taught by him that it was my honor to attend, he asked me: “Do you think a person can use music to look at life more fully? Or is it a separate world for you?” I said I’d seen it as a separate world. With humor, he continued: “Well, I’d encourage you not to be one of those composers who forget that the notes in music come from the same world as do cabbages and onions. The finding of solace in music,” he said, “the feeling that here everything for a while is manageable, is dangerous. The purpose of a musical artist is to get an arrangement of sounds in such a way that reality, as both ordinary and surprising, is shown.”

The Same Reality

In another class, speaking about the unjust way I saw my parents, about my deep reluctance to see their feelings as real, he said: “One thing you wouldn’t do if you could help it would be to weaken yourself as to music. Do you think the way you see people is good for music, not good, or is there no relation?” He explained:

ES. You don’t want to think about your parents because you think it will interfere with your comfort. But the whole history of music has the getting to something uncomfortable and showing there is something harmonious there—particularly modern music.

Once we decide to be contemptuous of anything, it can work even in a field where we think we are fervent. So would you say that when you dismiss the reality which is your parents you are caring for the reality music tries to describe?

EG. No.

ES. As soon as you insult any reality you insult reality as such. And reality as such is what you want to see as an artist.

Aesthetic Realism understands the human mind as it never was understood before. And because it does, imagination—I’m so happy to say—can now be everyone’s friend.