A World to Be Just to—or Manage?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the important lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave in 1971. And here too is an article by Harriet Bernstein, from a paper she presented this summer at the public seminar titled “The Fight in Women about Managing or Understanding—& the Beautiful Answer.” What do these two portions of the current TRO have to do with each other? What does the imagination that is in art have to do with a constant unseen battle in everyone—children, married couples, government officials: the battle of to manage versus to understand?
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that art is not an offset to life or even just a fine addition to life. Art is inseparable from what we are: art is how we want to be; it does what we want to do. This principle is the basis of the philosophy he founded: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The largest opposites in everyone’s life are self and world. These opposites are central in imagination. They’re central too in managing, and in understanding.
We Do Things with the World
In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel is illustrating how imagination gathers. Imagination brings together aspects of the world and composes them. In the present section he looks at a poem about spring by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe. He shows that Nashe is using that self which is his own to do something to the world: Nashe is gathering together various things that show what spring is—birds, people, growing things. And there are other gatherings by the Nashe imagination. There is that gathering of sounds which is rhyme; and another gathering of sounds which is rhythm. And throughout it all there is a gathering—a vibrant being affected by and composing—of those elements of which the world is made: the heaviness and lightness of things, their rest and motion, sameness and difference, freedom and order. What impels this imagination of an authentic artist?
The answer has in it why art is an emergency for us. There’s a crucial difference between the way people usually deal in their minds with the world, and how an artist does. The difference is in these words of the seminar title mentioned earlier: managing versus understanding. While an artist certainly does things to his or her material, what impels a true artist is not the desire to manage but to see, know, understand, value both the immediate object and the world it comes from and represents. Aesthetic Realism explains that no matter how wild one’s imagination is, if that imagination is good, is of art, it does things to the object, changes the object, in order to be fair to it, see it and show it truly.
Meanwhile, we are constantly doing things in our mind with the outside world—people, objects, sights, sounds, happenings. That means we’re constantly imagining. And what impels us: the desire to manage or to understand? Usually it’s the former. And that is the terrible, everyday cause of hurtfulness and cruelty: the use of one’s thought, one’s imagination, not to understand but to manage things to suit oneself.
We may try to manage people overtly: treat them as beings designed to do our bidding, fulfill our desires. But there’s an even more frequent, indeed a constant, ugly managing that goes on in people’s minds: a seeing of things and persons as we choose instead of wanting to see what or who they really are. Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World:
The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please....
The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]
To see people and things “as we please” is to imagine them, sloppily, inexactly. It’s to manage them and the facts in our mind.
Yet all kindness and justice come, not from the desire to manage people and facts, but to know: to see them in some fundamental way as real. For example, after the recent hurricanes many men and women tried to help others; some even put their own lives in danger to do so. Their action arose from a desire to see, be vividly aware of the plight of another: “These people going through so much have feelings. These people are real; they need something!” And now the anguish of devastated Puerto Rico cries out: See as real and answer this question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
There are many descriptions in literature of persons managing the facts in their minds; that is, having bad, contemptuous imagination. Take a passage about Lady Anne Newcome early in Thackeray’s novel The Newcomes. She does not want to see people truly; she sees them “in a way that seem[s] to go with comfort.” So she veers from praising them to despising them, depending on what makes her feel important at the time. Thackeray writes:
[She] was constantly falling in love with her new acquaintances; their man-servants and their maid-servants, their horses and ponies....She would ask strangers to [her home], hug and embrace them on Sunday; not speak to them on Monday; and on Tuesday behave so rudely to them, that they were gone before Wednesday. Her daughter had had so many governesses—all darlings during the first week, and monsters afterwards—that the poor child possessed none of the accomplishments of her age.
We meet Lady Anne’s bad imagination about people through Thackeray’s good imagination. His desire to see truly the world and his subject, makes for prose that is beautiful—at once symmetrical and chaotic, speedy and firm, comic and deep.
We want to see the way art sees. Aesthetic Realism is the magnificent education in how to do so.