Our Self, Our Danger, & Our Imagination
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish the conclusion of Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else, by Eli Siegel—one of the lectures he gave in 1946-7 at New York’s Steinway Hall. In this talk he is showing, during the Freudian heyday, that the self is something very different from what psychiatry was presenting. The self we all have, in its turmoil and triumph and confusion and sinking and hope, is an aesthetic situation, described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Even through our incomplete record of it—notes taken at the time—the greatness of this lecture is clear. For example, Mr. Siegel speaks about abstract art, which had become the reigning mode of modern painting and sculpture, and we see his graceful, definitive explanation of what it is. He does what no other critic did: relates abstract art to our so un-abstract lives. And he shows why it’s not apart from representational art—why all art is abstract.
Further, Mr. Siegel comments on dreams, in a way that can make for deep relief and pride in what the self is. He shows that dreams are philosophic.
And he speaks about something that Aesthetic Realism is alone in explaining: the difference between good imagination and bad. This is a distinction that people everywhere need mightily, urgently, and achingly to understand. It is what I’ll comment on a little here.
In the Minds of Children
On the Psychology Today website there is an article on imagination in children. It’s representative of how the various counselors of our time see the subject. In “Worldplay: One Cure for Imagination Deficit Disorder,” Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein write:
Your nine-year-old daughter has invented her own secret country....She designs clothes for its inhabitants and creates an imaginary language that she speaks only to them....Should you worry?
Worry only if children can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy....Children who invent make-believe worlds exhibit a strong and healthy imagination—and exercise creative behavior of value to adult professional endeavor....[Also,] imaginary friends...are a sign of healthy imaginative development.
No distinction is seen by these writers, and the psychologists generally, between childhood imagination that is fine, “healthy,” ever so good, and imagination that is hurtful, bad. As long as the child knows she’s imagining, they say, everything’s all right. Meanwhile, children go through a great deal: they can be fearful, angry, immensely agitated. Can the way a child imagines encourage such feelings?
Aesthetic Realism is beautifully clear. The difference between good and bad imagination in a child or anyone is this: Are you changing the world in your mind in order to have respect for reality or contempt for reality? The fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the biggest, most important fight in the life of everyone. How it fares is how our lives fare.
Two Poems on the Subject
Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Child’s Garden of Verses, has written poetry about children that is authentic, musical. I quote from two of his poems to show the difference between good and bad imagination.
There is “Windy Nights,” in which a child imagines that sounds the wind makes come from a man galloping down the roads. This is the first of the poem’s two stanzas:
Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
The child’s imagination described here is quite beautiful. It is the imagination, deep in humanity, that wants to personify things, make the world outside us close to us by giving it a life that is like our own. The desire to give personality to inanimate things is what impelled various aspects of mythology. It had the ancient Greeks see dryads in woods, naiads in streams. So, the imagination Stevenson has the child in this poem express is respectful of the world: it sees the world with both more wonder and closeness.
Then there is the poem called “My Kingdom.” What it describes is like what’s told of in the Psychology Today article: here a child makes a private world out of a small section of land. Some lines are:
And all about was mine, I said,
The little sparrows overhead,
The little minnows too.
This was the world and I was king;
For me the bees came by to sing,
For me the swallows flew.
I played there were no deeper seas,
Nor any wider plains than these,
Nor other kings than me.
This is put charmingly, and the poetry is very good— but the imagination it tells of is not. The big question about imaginary worlds and also imaginary friends is: do you use them to get away from other people, look down on other people, feel superior to other people—or do you use them to respect other people? When a child creates an imaginary world—is it because she wants to see the wonder and possibilities the world itself has, or because she feels the world she’s in every day isn’t good enough for her, and she should have one tailored just for her, which she can rule? That’s the question for the girl in the Psychology Today article. And not to distinguish is cruel to a child, because it praises a way of mind that hurts her life: contempt. It says there’s no difference between the best thing in her and the worst.
Like All of Us
The little boy in “My Kingdom” is not a villain; he’s like everyone. But the contempt which can take quiet forms in all of us is also the source of every injustice and cruelty. This boy wants a world that he can run, in which everything serves him: he’s superior to everything and doesn’t have to look up to or respect anything. In fact, no one else exists: there are no “other kings than me.” He is likely the same little boy who, in the “Windy Nights” poem, wanted to see wonder in the world. But we all have two desires—for respect and for contempt—and we need to know the difference.
Ever so many little girls have imagined they were princesses, in a higher realm than the mere mortals who surround them. Children have imagined that they were really adopted and came from royal parents, far superior to the family they’re forced to live with. Children have imagined using weapons to mow down everyone. All this is contempt. It’s different from the imagination with which a child pictures himself somebody else in order to feel what another person may feel—in order to make himself and what’s not himself join.
And as to imaginary playmates, the criterion is: do you use this person to value more the children in the neighborhood, or to say, “Pooh on them! I’ve got someone who exists just for me and is better than everyone I know”?
A child’s contemptuous imagining makes him lonely—because in it he has made himself apart from other people. It makes him fearful, because he feels deeply persons should be against him for how he sees. It intensifies his anger and agitation, because it has intensified his being against the world. All this is so about an adult too. We may come to scornful and conquistador-ish fantasies because we’re not happy, but such imaginings, whatever our age, result in our being less happy, more unsure, ill-at-ease, empty. That is because our deepest desire is to like the world, including through the inventiveness which is imagination.
There is a famous two-line poem in the Stevenson book. Its title is “Happy Thought,” and it expresses, really, what should be the upshot of all imagination:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
That means: as we use our imaginative minds to see what the world has, we’ll see that it’s something we can like very much. With great logic, the study of Aesthetic Realism makes the hope that is in this poem a reality.