What Kind of Imagination?
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the first part of Imagination—It Gathers, by Eli Siegel. This lecture of June 1971 is from a series, magnificent and definitive, that he was giving at the time on the subject of imagination. He spoke and wrote on imagination often, and he is the philosopher to explain something never understood before: Aesthetic Realism shows there are two kinds of imagination, and shows the criterion for each, the distinction between them. Humanity needs, mightily, to know that distinction.
What makes some imagination valuable, life-strengthening, beautiful, even artistically great? And what makes another kind ugly, weakening, stupid, viciously hurtful? There is, for example, the imagination of Shakespeare. Through it there came to be characters who—whether good or evil—are grandly immortal: Juliet, for instance, and Iago; Viola, Hamlet, and Lady Macbeth. What is the fundamental difference between the Shakespeare imagination, with its made-up persons and actions, and the imagination of a politician who makes up and puts forth lies? Or the imagination of two high school girls who plot how to make another girl look ridiculous via social media?
The All-Important Difference
The fundamental distinction between bad imagination and good, Aesthetic Realism explains, is this: Bad imagination is impelled by, and has as its purpose, contempt for the world. Good imagination—whatever the material—is impelled by, and has as its purpose, respect for the world. Sometimes that respect for reality is so deep and full, delicate and powerful, that the result is art, including art of the highest kind.
This principle of Aesthetic Realism is true of imagination: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The chief opposites in imagination, Mr. Siegel showed, are the main opposites in everyone’s life: self and world. In all imagination, we use ourselves to do something with an instance of the world. We are always imagining: we meet something in the outside world and do something to it in our minds. And always in what we do is what Mr. Siegel speaks of in the lecture now being serialized: we gather; we put one thing together with other things.
The Imagination That Is Cruelty
In chapter 5 of his Self and World, titled “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics,” Mr. 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.
Imagination, and what and how it gathers, has been central to all the kindness and cruelty in history. For example, racism and all prejudice are forms of imagination—ugly imagination. You take an instance of reality, somebody who seems different from you—maybe a man passing on the street, or a little girl sitting at a classroom desk. And you use yourself to do something to that instance of reality, that human being: you join to him or her various sleazy, mean, false ideas and pictures. This joining, this gathering, is imagination that does not hope to “see the world as what it is.” It is imagination driven by contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”
And there is that matter, tremendous across our land: economics, how jobs are had, money is made, things are produced, sold, purchased. At the basis of any economy is imagination-as-gathering. For instance: a certain product is thought of, imagined, had in mind. And thought gathers together with this product the things that will be involved in creating and selling it, including people who will make it, people who will buy it, possible expenditures, possible income. This imagination, this gathering of thought, will be either contemptuous or respectful, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly.
Economics for centuries has largely been run in terms of the profit motive. And by definition, by its very name, the profit motive impels one to think about one’s fellow humans and the world on this basis: They’re for me to use for my personal profit; I should squeeze as much money as possible for myself from these people, items, procedures—pay workers as little as possible; spend as little as possible on materials and safety measures; charge as high a price as possible.
In 1970, Eli Siegel showed that this ugly motive as an engine for economic activity has become irreparably inefficient. So today the nation’s wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people and increasingly Americans are becoming poorer. He made clear that the one way economics will now succeed is by having a different basis, and this basis is in the following question: What does a person deserve by being a person? The asking of that question, deeply, pointedly, widely, in terms of every aspect of economics, will be an imaginative asking—a terrifically practical asking. Accompanying the question is another ethical and aesthetic one, a profoundly American question, which Americans long to have be the basis of our economy: How can I express myself, be fully myself, and simultaneously be useful to other people, strengthen them, bring out the best in them?
It Came from a Kind of Imagination
Lately, people throughout the world have been much affected by an instance, flagrant yet representative, of what a certain motive can do. I am referring to the fire in London last month, in the high-rise building called Grenfell Tower. On June 14, the 24-storey, 129-unit apartment block became a blazing inferno. What has been seen is that the cladding panels used in the renovation of this building (and in many similar London buildings) contained highly flammable material. A company knowingly sold that cladding, and a company doing the renovation and persons responsible for financing it chose that cladding—though they all knew a much safer product was available.
Further, the conflagration began as a fire in a refrigerator. The back of that refrigerator was plastic—highly flammable—rather than metal, which would have been fire-resistant. The choice to produce, sell, buy, and install very flammable refrigerators was made—by companies and by persons of business involved with the Grenfell and other buildings. They made that choice even though the London Fire Brigade had been urgently warning about the dangers of the plastic backing.
I’m writing about the fire because it arose from the use of imagination by one person after another. Imagination has to do with value: a person gathers together aspects of a situation, and possibilities, and asks, Among these possibilities, what is most valuable for me? It’s clear that one company after another, one person after another, decided: making as much profit as possible for themselves was more important than whether other people lived or died. And so, homes and human beings were burnt to ashes on a June day.
The Imagination We Want
People do not know that in their everyday lives they’re in a fight between two kinds of imagination. And without realizing it, they have imaginings that are related to bad imagination anywhere, including in economics. A person, ever so often, thinks of others not to understand who they truly are but in terms of: How can I have this person make me important? How can I show I’m superior to him? How can I manage him—get him to do what I want? Then, even if one succeeds, one feels agitated, empty, angry, ashamed. People are thirsty to have, in every aspect of life, the imagination that is in art: the imagination that is the desire to know—to be ourselves through seeing other things and people richly, deeply, vividly. Aesthetic Realism can teach us how to have it. It is the imagination Eli Siegel himself had, with the greatest beauty, all the time.