The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Do We Want to Imagine?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the important—also exciting and delightful—lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave in 1971. And here too is an article about imagination by architect and Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin. It’s from a paper he presented last month, at a public seminar titled “A Man’s Imagination: What Makes It Good or Bad?”

That title has in it something of the greatness of Aesthetic Realism. People haven’t known that imagination, with all its vast diversity, is of two kinds. Eli Siegel is the critic who showed it is, and made clear the distinction between these. There is the imagination which—even when it deals with the grotesque or ugly—is based on respect for the world. That is good imagination, good for the person having it and for humanity. The other imagination is based on contempt for the world; it is bad imagination, is always hurtful, and (as I wrote in the previous issue) is behind every human cruelty, from snobbishness to racism and fascism.

This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about every aspect of art and life, including imagination: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Imagination, Mr. Siegel showed, is always a joining of the biggest opposites in our lives, self and world. We take something from the outside world, and do something with it in our mind. (Even our imaginings about ourselves are about us in relation to what’s outside of us.) In a sense, our imagination changes the thing it deals with, and the changing includes what Mr. Siegel speaks of here: gathering. That is, through our mind we join this thing with other things; we also find things, sometimes very surprising, within it. If the imagining is good, what we do to the thing, how we change it, is in keeping with what it is: honors it, is true to it and the world.

These Tell of Imagination

As a prelude to the present section of Imagination—It Gathers and to Dale Laurin’s article, I am going to comment on four sentences by Eli Siegel from a much quoted work of his: Damned Welcome: Aesthetic Realism Maxims.

He wrote in many genres; but with Damned Welcome we have that genre in which few have done well: the brief yet rich, the charming yet deep, the playful yet exact form which is the maxim. (Besides Eli Siegel, the greatest writer of maxims is La Rochefoucauld; eminent too is Benjamin Franklin.) All the maxims in Damned Welcome are imaginative, in the truest and best sense. But some are also about aspects of imagination. That is so of the maxims I’ll quote. And I’ll comment a little on what they tell us about our subject, so central to art and everyone’s life. We can begin with one of the most popular maxims in the book:

A pessimist is a person who finds an oyster in a pearl. [Part 1, maxim 56]

We know it’s wonderful that a pearl is produced by and harbored in an oyster: its being there stands for the fact that the precious can be in something that seems not precious at all. However (and this is what the maxim is about), bad imagination can take a thing having wonder, loveliness, beauty, and arrange to wipe all that out, find some overriding amissness. The reason is: we’d like to feel anything that appears good is really a deception, so we can feel the only precious thing is us and we’re in a world not good enough for us. This is imagination driven by contempt. And here Mr. Siegel satirizes it in only 12 words!—playfully, musically, with a speed that’s also thoughtful and firm.

The next maxim I’ll quote describes a beautiful aspect of imagination:

We can say Here in 752, and There in this very year; Here in Nineveh, and There in Scranton. [Part 1, maxim 74]

A good deal of the history of art is in this maxim. That is, increasingly as the years passed, and very much in Romanticism, there was a seeing of the strange, the far off, including the distant past, as not just apart from oneself; and a seeing of the familiar as having wonder. This was and is imagination, and we need it—because people in their lives have felt that the strange and distant were only separate from them, were only “There”; and that what seemed ordinary and familiar—“this very year” and “Scranton”—did not have wonder, strangeness, the “There” quality. We want the art imagination, which says that the strange is close to us, and also that our hometown has mystery. Eli Siegel describes this fact—in prose that, itself, both is down-to-earth and has wonder.

A very different maxim with a related message is:

A story could be written about how a table wasn’t wiped, which could thrill no end: send the blood coursing swiftly through you. [Part 1, maxim 177]

The purpose of imagination—in art and life—is to find meaning in things, not take it away. How much meaning is in something that may not seem to have it at all? How much can the world stir us—not because we can conquer things or bend them to our wishes, but because we are seeing things truly? I love this maxim, both for what it says and how it says it: there is—not only in the statement but in its rhythm, its music—the oneness of factuality and excitement, definiteness and stirring motion.

False Love Is Bad Imagination

There is a wonderful maxim about the bad imagination that is so frequent in love:

The person he adored wasn’t she; the person doing the adoring wasn’t he: all this is not a reflection on adoration. [Part 2, maxim 126]

Because people have not liked the world, and not seen it as something lovingly to know, they haven’t really wanted to know a person they saw themselves as caring for. Instead, they’ve seen the loved one as: 1) someone with whom to put the world aside, and 2) someone who will make me more important than the world itself.

When you use somebody to lessen the world, you cannot want to know the person, because every individual is a representative of the world. Each person is composed of reality’s opposites. Everyone is also a gathering of all the things he or she has to do with, and those things are infinite. But people pick someone out of the world and use their imagination to create a person around aspects of him or her they’ve chosen to see. So: “The person he adored wasn’t she.”

Further, “the person doing the adoring wasn’t he”—because the deepest thing in us, who we really are, wants to see what’s true about people and the world. And somewhere we know it when we’re a phony, as to love or anything else.

Aesthetic Realism’s logic on the subject of love is new, kind, magnificent—and because of it, real love has come to people’s lives. But in the maxim I just quoted, Mr. Siegel is humorously succinct. It’s in three parts. The first two are sharp (though the sharpness murmurs a little). The third part is very hopeful: it tells us that love is real, no matter how much people are untrue to it—“all this is not a reflection on adoration.”

I could quote other maxims from Damned Welcome. But I’m very glad to quote these—by Eli Siegel, whose imagination, great, kind, free, exact, was the same as his love of truth.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Control, Uncontrol, & More

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is looking at sentences in Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars to illustrate how imagination gathers. We are in the midst of act 2, set in a pub.

Fluther has just asked the Covey, “Are you goin’ to have anything?”

The Covey. Ah, I don’t mind if I have another half.

Ah is an interjection. It’s not the strongest in the world—damn is a little stronger. But it is an interjection, which means it’s an expression by itself. There are not so many interjections in any language. Hush is a very nice one.

“Ah, I don’t mind if I have another half.” There’s a gathering here, and it includes an aspect of language that has much to do with imagination: a phrase beginning with if. When imagination came to be in its fullness, the conjunction if came into its glory, or its sadness—however you put it. If has glory in it. Conjunctions have much to do with imagination.

Fluther. You know, there’s no conthrollin’ a woman when she loses her head.

There are some words which, though they need not be present in an art situation, have very much to do with imagination. Imagination is either controlled or uncontrolled. If it is uncontrolled, one can have an awful time, and very often one does. A nightmare is an example of uncontrolled imagination. Meanwhile, for imagination to be controlled is to run a risk, because to control imagination is to limit where one goes, what one does. In the field of music, I have heard it said—in fact, I said it myself—that the Gregorian chant is wonderful but it’s too controlled. It also happens that Baroque music is more controlled than Romantic music. And present-day art can give one a feeling of more control than that of any other time: there’s an idea of grim, unrelenting symmetry in present-day art.

In painting, the canvas has to control everything in it. If Meissonier is painting Napoleon retreating from Moscow, there may be many horses and a lot of snow but the canvas controls it all. In the meantime, there’s the control of form, and the Meissonier painting is an orderly picture with many things in it. Signorelli in his Last Judgment has a lot of people in great pain; they’re tossing about and falling—and he has a good deal of control, as Michelangelo does. Michelangelo said, When I deal with the Last Judgment I’d better have control. And he did have control.

So the idea of control is in imagination. Controlling is giving form, power, and meaning to gathering. That is, you control something that could get out of hand because there are two forces or more in it. The idea of a coachman controlling eight horses—if you’re not thrilled by it, I’m sorry I mentioned it. A dancer doing a difficult step is an example of control and daring. And one could say about someone’s singing, She has a wonderful voice but she doesn’t know what to do with it: she can’t control it; it gets to the upper register too soon. What all this has to do with imagination is something to consider. And I can say this: the problem will be with one indefinitely, because art is the same as reality.

Fluther is talking about control in relation to a woman. When any person needs control, it means there’s some cause, something the person doesn’t know is running him or her, fighting a possible check on it. Someone may say in court after giving testimony and bursting into tears, I’m sorry, Your Honor—I lost control. That is fairly frequent.

Fluther uses the word lose. Imagination selects; and in all selection you have to know what to lose, what to retain, what to add. These three motions are always in imagination: you keep things as they are; lose something; add something.

Then, in this scene, Rosie enters:

Rosie (to Barman). Divil a use o’ havin’ a thrim little leg on a night like this; things was never worse.

I could—because one can do it with prose, as well as poetry—show the rhythmical makeup of every word and the relation of that to gathering. There is “Divil a use.” It’s Irish slang, if you want to call it that. But “Divil a use” can be seen as a swift spondee (two accented syllables) followed by an iambic (an unaccented syllable, then an accented). A question is whether, since art is a gathering of things, we’re affected by each thing by itself, though we may not notice it. In looking at a painting, are we affected by things we don’t know we saw?

Each of the sentences I read is a gathering. In order to criticize work, including poems, you have to see what kind of gathering it is, and what are the things that are gathered.


A Man’s Imagination: Two Kinds

By Dale Laurin

“We all of us,” Eli Siegel writes in Self and World,

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]

Our imagination is good, Aesthetic Realism explains, when we use it to be fair to what the world is, and bad when we lessen people and things as a spurious means of being important. The latter is contempt. With all its allure for the ego, contempt is the cause of all injustice, and it hurts our minds and stunts our emotions.

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I changed from a cold, suspicious cynic who used my imagination to make fun of just about everyone, and who, as a result, felt lonely, anxious, and unable to have the large feelings I hoped for. Through what I’ve learned I have emotions I’m proud of, about the world and what other people deserve. And I’m able to use my mind and imagination to get to new expression as an architect and an Aesthetic Realism consultant.

A Boy’s Imagination, Good & Bad

Mr. Siegel explains that “every child has this debate: Shall I...see the world as magnificently and as delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?” (Self and World, p. 6).

This was my debate as I was growing up in Pittsburgh. I loved geography. And I was excited reading about different nations and their cultures, doing class reports about them, drawing their flags, making maps on which I tried to convey a country’s intricate coastline. And I liked imagining what its cities and farmlands looked like.

But I also liked seeing the world as “material for victories for just me.” For instance, rather than see classmates—many of whose families came from places I studied—as opportunities to know more about the world, I saw them as against me because they were different from me and didn’t consider me the prince I imagined myself to be. I used hearsay about a Laurin castle in Sweden, and the fact that my middle name, Thurston, derived from Thor—the Norse god of thunder—to feel I was a far superior ten-year-old, likely of royal descent. Meanwhile, I was painfully shy and complained I had no friends.

Later, in college, I wanted to design buildings that were beautiful and useful, but I also had a very different desire, fueled by snobbery: to wow people with my talent. What resulted on the drawing board were less often places for people to live or work than dull shrines to my vanity. Contempt was impeding my creative imagination, the way my mind functioned, and the emotions I longed to have.

The Victory of Relation

Then I met Aesthetic Realism, and in 1978 had a lesson taught by the man with the greatest mind and kindest heart I have ever known: Eli Siegel. He asked me, “Do you think snobbishness makes for more fear or less fear?”

DL. I think it makes for more fear.

ES. And what have you been afraid of?

DL. I think I’ve been afraid both of knowing myself and knowing other people too deeply.

Then, illustrating this great principle of Aesthetic Realism, “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites,” Mr. Siegel showed me something tremendous: that other people and things—from a coworker to Botticelli, from Westminster Abbey to a mosque, from my jacket to the floor beneath my feet—were related to me through the opposites. For instance:

ES. What relation does Beethoven have to architecture? Do you think every composition in music is in a sense a construction, and therefore is like architecture?

DL. Yes.

ES. Is that present in yourself: are you an organization?

DL. Not as well organized as I could be.

ES. No, no—you’re an organization. The large thing in organization is many things working as one. And right now, is all of your body working as one—is there a certain relation between your toes and your eyes, between your fingers and your toes?

Yes! And I saw that relation is a oneness of sameness and difference; and through the relation of things there can be organization, “many things working as one.”

Eli Siegel enabled me to be more myself, more truly organized, as I studied how I was related to things and people in the world. There was a new kind of imagination, accuracy, and justice in my thought. For example, I remember, on a crowded subway, asking myself about a person across the aisle, “Is he trying to put opposites together: does he feel—like the train car we’re in—both at rest and in motion, alone and related to others?”

This new way of seeing included my coming to know and love a woman: city planner and Aesthetic Realism associate Barbara Buehler. I’m grateful and tremendously happy to feel that through being married to Barbara, through her criticism and imaginative good will, I like the whole world more. Holding her in my arms and knowing she loves and wants to strengthen my life has me feel I’m one of the luckiest men alive.