The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Imagination, & Humanity’s Pettiness & Might

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing the great lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave on June 9, 1971. As we publish the 4th section, I am very glad to state again this fact, so important for the life of every person, and for how our nation and the world itself fare: There are, Aesthetic Realism has shown, two kinds of imagination, one good and one bad. Good imagination, though it may be ever so wild, though it may deal with ugliness, always arises from respect for the world. Bad imagination arises from contempt, which Mr. Siegel described as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

All imagination, whether in art or life, consists of a particular mind doing something with what it meets, the outside world. And having contempt for the world is the sleaziest, stupidest, meanest thing a person can do, though it’s immensely popular. Contempt is the beginning of every human cruelty.

In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about something he shows is central in imagination: gathering, the bringing of things together. And an urgent (also lovely) question for everyone is: how do we bring things together in our minds—respectfully or contemptuously?

In Our Lives

One reason the subject of gathering matters so much is that there’s a terrific tendency in people to keep aspects of their lives apart. Millions of people have a different self when they’re with, say, their relatives, from the self they show their co-workers; then, another self with their friends; a different one still with their “significant other.” And they have a self unseen by anyone, which is just theirs, regal and alone. We divide rather than join aspects of our lives because, for one thing, we don’t know how to join them—but also because we feel we can manage people better that way. Something in us feels, without articulating it, that if we relate the aspects and people in our life and are one unified self with them all, we’ll be pinned down, not have the power we want. Yet this division makes us feel agitated, empty, ashamed.

Then, there is a contemptuous gathering that goes on constantly: a horrible, inaccurate lumping together—of things or people. Something bad happens, and we use it to feel the whole world is a mess: we make objects, happenings, books, human beings, less important than they are; we take the vivid, kind meaning out of things; we make the many things and people of the world one wash of disappointment because something or someone has given us pain.

Further, all prejudice is a hideous gathering: we rob millions of people of their individualities and turn them into one “type,” whom we look down on. Meanwhile, we also separate them: we do not see them as gathered with us in that great composition called Humanity. All this is completely opposed to art, because true art in any field shows that things—notes, shapes, words, happenings—have to do with other things, livingly, stirringly, even as each is itself.

The Laughable & the Grand

In the lecture we’re serializing Mr. Siegel has been using as text Sean O’Casey’s 1926 drama The Plough and the Stars. He’s not discussing it as a play, but is showing that imagination-as-gathering is in its statements, phrases, sometimes in an individual word—like exchange or tapping.

Meanwhile, just 11 weeks earlier, Mr. Siegel gave a lecture great as literary criticism and definitive about O’Casey. It was about another O’Casey play: Juno and the Paycock. Now, in the present section of Imagination—It Gathers, he refers to the central idea of that earlier lecture. Because it’s an idea so vital, an explanation so needed—as a means of placing what’s published here I’m going to quote from the talk on Juno and the Paycock. On March 24, 1971 Mr. Siegel said:

The talk today, dealing chiefly with Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, I have called “Words Are Everywhere: Comedy and Tragedy Are Two of These.” The subject is exceedingly important: what is the relation between man’s cheerfulness and his sadness, his tragedy and his comedy, evil and good? People separate the two, but the unconscious has always wanted to put these everyday opposites together: why do I feel so bad?; why do I want to be so cheerful?

O’Casey was taken in a notable way by the desire that humanity has had, that drama has had, to show that sorrow and cheerfulness are one. The way in Juno and the Paycock the ridiculous, the tawdry, the shoddy mingle with the grand, and the laughable with the unendurable, is notable....

The question is, what is the relation of th[e] comedy [in this play] to the tragedy? It’s not just comic relief. It’s too inherent in the play....

Aesthetic Realism does say that the only good sense in the world is aesthetics. It says that beauty is the only thing that takes in the tragedy and comedy of life, its ridiculousness and its tearfulness, and composes them.

What Mr. Siegel is explaining has to do tremendously with imagination as gathering—because a matter that’s huge and mainly painful in everyone’s life is: what kind of gathering or composition do we make of our laughter and tears, our sense of the grand, the immensely serious, and “the ridiculous, the tawdry”? Other critics, of course, have noticed that both comedy and tragedy are in O’Casey’s works, but they haven’t seen how deeply these opposites are one there. In fact, John Gassner, in his Treasury of the Theatre, writes of Juno and the Paycock, “Perhaps the comedy and tragedy that jostle each other in the script detract from each other.” And critics haven’t seen why what O’Casey does with those opposites matters. The reason it matters is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars both have to do with mighty events. The first is set in 1922, during the Irish Civil War. Then there is The Plough and the Stars, the title of which refers to the flag of the Irish Citizen Army. In the section Mr. Siegel looks at here, a passionate meeting is taking place on a Dublin street in preparation for what will be the Easter Uprising, April 1916, against England’s brutal ownership of Ireland. Mr. Siegel points to O’Casey’s bringing together the enormous feeling of people as they hear a speech in behalf of Irish freedom—with the comic, silly, petty quarreling of several persons in a pub. This is O’Casey’s imagination gathering: gathering the pettiness of reality and its might—and making form of them.

In life though, as Mr. Siegel said, people divide these opposites. When they feel something is serious they’re usually not lighthearted, but grim. And when they joke and are light, it’s so often in behalf of contempt: to lessen, not honor, the meaning of people, things, the world. This rift is everyday, but it makes people despise themselves deeply.

Another form of the division between might and lowness is: Every person has seen him- or herself as the most significant being there is, the center of the universe. And the same person has called her- or himself stupid, foolish, mean. We do not make a composition of such feelings; we shuttle distressfully between them.

I am grateful without limit to have learned that for the opposites of the serious and the light to be one in us, we need to have the same purpose with both: the purpose to see truly; to see meaning in things; to know and like the world. That was Eli Siegel’s purpose always. He honored the largeness of things, and had that grandeur all the time. It was there even as he was humorous—and he could be immensely humorous, light, even rollickingly, beautifully funny.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Gathering: In Reality & O’Casey

By Eli Siegel

Note. At the point Mr. Siegel has reached in The Plough and the Stars, Fluther and the Covey, in a pub, are arguing over who cares more about the labor movement.

This play consists of gathering after gathering, all of them having some imaginative significance or value.

The Covey. Well, let us put it to th’ test, then, an’ see what you know about th’ Labour movement: what’s the mechanism of exchange?

Fluther (roaring, because he feels he is beaten). How th’ hell do I know what it is? There’s nothin’ about that in th’ rules of our Thrades Union!

One of the things to see about exchange, which is a very large term, is that you exchange things that are like each other or not like each other. As, for example: Would you want to exchange my hat for yours? That’s exchange of similarity. But Do you want to exchange my hat for this copy of A Shropshire Lad?—that’s something else. Or Do you want to exchange my hat for a threepence?—that’s another kind of exchange.

Exchanging is always going on. Then, there are things that haven’t been sold yet. They say that a coat made in San Francisco dropped into the Grand Canyon in 1906 and hasn’t reached a customer yet. So it never went through any exchange. Meantime, it undergoes the elements there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But exchange, like music, has sameness and difference, because to give three yen for a copy of Spinoza—that is sameness and difference. And it happens that Spinoza is quite popular in Japan. (Not as popular as Spencer.)

Then the Covey asks Fluther to describe “th’ Relation of Value to th’ Cost o’ Production.”

Fluther (angrily). What th’ hell do I care...?

I’ll give you a tip: if the value that you get—what you’re paid for the product—is not greater than the cost of production, you’d better get out of business. Also, if the value that you give to the person doing the production is as much as the value you get for selling the thing produced, you’re a philanthropist.

Repetition Is a Form of Gathering

The Covey. When you start tellin’ luscious lies about what you done for th’ Labour movement, it’s nearly time to show y’up!

Fluther (fiercely). Is it you show Fluther up? G’way, man, I’d beat two o’ you before me breakfast!...

The Covey. You’re a big fella, you are.

Fluther (tapping the Covey threateningly on the shoulder). Now, you’re temptin’ Providence when you’re temptin’ Fluther!

Earlier in the play we had the word clapping and now we have tapping, which is a word showing repetition. In “The Raven,” Poe rhymes tapping and rapping: the raven taps and raps. The words have that repetition: clapping, tapping, and rapping—and that shows the English language makes sense.

The Covey (losing his temper, and bawling). Easy with them hands, there, easy with them hands! You’re startin’to take a little risk when you commence to paw the Covey!...

Barman (running from behind the counter and catching hold of the Covey). Here, out you go, me little bowsey....Fluther’s a friend o’ mine, an’ I’ll not have him insulted....(He pushes the Covey out....)

Rosie (getting Fluther’s hat)....Did j’ever!

Fluther. He’s lucky he got off safe. I hit a man last week, Rosie, an’ he’s fallin’ yet!

There are many metaphors about what you can do if you hit somebody. The most daring is I’ll knock you into the middle of next week. But Fluther says, “I hit a man last week, Rosie, an’ he’s fallin’ yet!” The idea of falling, and keeping on falling, is in an early book of Paradise Lost, where Satan falls from Heaven.

Rosie. Sure, you’d ha’ broken him in two if you’d ha’ hitten him one clatther!

Clatter, like shatter, is a gathering. As soon as you shatter dishes, you have a gathering of fragments. Patter also is a gathering.

Fluther (amorously, putting his arm around Rosie). Come into th’ snug, me little darlin’, an’ we’ll have a few dhrinks before I see you home.

Rosie. Oh, Fluther, I’m afraid you’re a terrible man for th’ women.

From Humor to Seriousness

Then O’Casey does what he likes to do: right after this, we have seriousness. Some leaders of the Irish Volunteers come in, Clitheroe, Brennan, and Langon:

Capt. Brennan carries the banner of The Plough and the Stars, and Lieut. Langon a green, white and orange Tricolour.

The two most famous plays of O’Casey have an early gathering which can be called the dual gathering, or at least the dual relation: Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Here we have “the banner of The Plough and the Stars.” And on another flag we have a gathering that’s three, the tricolor—green, white, and orange—as in the American flag, red, white, and blue, and the French flag.

They are in a state of emotional excitement. Their faces are flushed and their eyes sparkle; they speak rapidly.

The eyes are a study in unification, and in emission and gathering, because as soon as the eyes begin to sparkle you have multiple petite dazzlement. Then, the eyes can be very grave. Eyes can be quiet pools or delicate spiritual fireworks. —These are stage directions, but O’Casey is careful with them. There’s composition here.

They speak rapidly.” It’s interesting to see that words like rapid and speed imply composition, because they show an object is in more than one place.

They have been mesmerized by the fervency of the speeches....

Capt. Brennan. We won’t have long to wait now.

Lieut. Langon. Th’ time is rotten ripe for revolution.

We have the phrase “rotten ripe.” Gathering and division and multiplication have to do with everything, and so there are things in chemistry and physics that have to do with gathering. I’ll mention two. One is the process of decay, or the being rotten. The other is the process of fermentation. Tyndall wrote a famous essay on fermentation—how liquid, which is seemingly smooth, changes into warlike drops. Being rotten is a way of acquiring another mode of composition, called decomposition. Take a pear that becomes rotten: the pear consists of parts when it’s at its best, but the parts are differently arranged when the pear is rotten. That’s so of an apple, or anything. Fullness and division are in “rotten ripe,” because occasionally ripeness (representing fullness) is next to rottenness (representing division). There’s a study in opposites there.

Lieut. Langon. Th’ time for Ireland’s battle is now—th’ place for Ireland’s battle is here.

That is quite rhythmical. It’s almost like verse. Then, this stage direction:

[A] tall, dark figure...is silhouetted against the window. The three men pause and listen.

Since every form is a gathering, and since it is well to dramatize form, we can say a silhouette is a gathering of various directions and motions, all in behalf of a plane.

Voice of the Man. Our foes are strong, but strong as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God, who ripens in the heart of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. They think they have pacified Ireland; think they have foreseen everything; think they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!—they have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace!

There are quite a few words or expressions here having to do with gathering and dividing. One, which has to do with life itself, is in the phrase “the seeds sown.” There is the plurality of “our foes are strong,” and the plurality of “miracles.” Then, if you “pacified Ireland” it would mean that the warring things in Ireland came to have composition.

From Fervor to Lightness

Capt. Brennan (catching up The Plough and the Stars). Imprisonment for th’ Independence of Ireland!

Lieut. Langon (catching up the Tricolour). Wounds for th’ Independence of Ireland!

Clitheroe. Death for th’ Independence of Ireland!

The Three (together). So help us God!

They drink. A bugle blows the Assembly. They hurry out. A pause. Fluther and Rosie come out of the snug: Rosie is linking Fluther, who is a little drunk. Both are in a merry mood.

With that intensity and then getting in “a merry mood,” we have O’Casey at work.

Rosie sings a lively song and: “They go out with their arms around each other.” Then we have that strong seriousness:

Clitheroe’s Voice (in command outside). Dublin Battalion of the Irish Citizen Army, by th’ right, quick march!

Military language is often about gathering. Battalion is a kind of gathering. Platoon is a kind of gathering. So are regiment, division, corps, and army itself.

So we have concluded the second act and gathered thoughts about gathering.