Marion Fennell, Aesthetic Realism Associate


Imagination Does Something


Note: This is a report on an Aesthetic Realism class for Consultants and Assocoates taught by Class Chairman Ellen Reiss,  October 13 & 18, 1996

In Eli Siegel’s 1971 lecture Imagination Does Something, one of a series he gave on the subject, he explained that there is a relation between Imagination had by an artist and how we use our imagination in our everyday thoughts.  Imagination, he said, is not something we use just at "creative" times, or which some people have and others don't, but that we all have imagination throughout each day!  He defined imagination as "a particular way a self has of taking the world, with a possible addition, subtraction, or rearranging." 

Aesthetic Realism teaches that what we do with the world in our minds always has a purpose--it is either to have more respect or more contempt for it; and that this purpose does something to us.  Mr. Siegel explained, "Imagination by itself does something,
It adds something of yourself to the fact you are dealing with, or changes a fact you are dealing with, because of what you are, or what you are at that time And the way you can change a fact may be useful or it may be harmful."

It is urgent to study the difference between changing the facts in a way that is useful--even beautiful, as it is in art--and doing it in a way that is harmful, on the side of ugliness, cruelty, and even mental illness.  Said Mr. Siegel:

A purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to encourage one to have imagination that is friendly to oneself.

He said he hoped to be thorough in this lecture as he discussed the last act of Juno and the Paycock of 1925, by the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey.  And was he true to that purpose!  He used this play: (1) to show how O'Casey's imagination made for art, and (2) to show, through this representative family of Ireland, how imagination works in our everyday thoughts. "It is most important," he said, "to study it where it is ordinary and plodding, because if you don't want to study it there, you're not studying it." 

Giving a synopsis of the earlier acts, Mr. Siegel described the central characters of the play. There is Captain Boyle, called the "Paycock", or peacock, for his strutting ways, who says he is unable to work because of "pains in me legs." His buddy is a neighbor, Joxer Daley, and together they have interesting chats about the state of the world—much to the irritation of Captain Boyle’s wife, Juno, who feels Joxer is a bad influence on her husband.

Mrs. Boyle is nicknamed "Juno" because, as her husband says, she was born, married, and became a mother all in the month of June.  There is the son, Johnny, who lost an arm fighting against British occupation, and who is now ill and both terrified and guilty because--as we learn later--he has betrayed one of his comrades, Bobby Tancred, who is subsequently killed.  And there is their daughter, Mary, who imagines that a man she cares for, Charles Bentham is trustworthy.  Bentham is a school teacher who has told the Boyle family they will inherit a large sum of money.  But in the last act, it is clear Mary didn't imagine him truly.  We learn that he has mishandled the writing of a cousin's will; and the family sees they will inherit almost nothing.  The furniture they bought on credit is repossessed, and Mary is deserted by Bentham, who doesn't know she is carrying his child.

Mr. Siegel read lines from the last act of Juno and the Paycock; becoming each character with depth and critical compassion.  And as he showed the imagination present in a word, phrase, the dialog, and stage directions, he enabled us to better understand our imagination.  In one scene Mary's previous boyfriend, Jerry Devine, asks her to come back to him, but she refuses, saying it is impossible "after all that has happened."   Jerry replies, "What does it matter what has happened?  We are young enough to forget all those things."  Said Mr. Siegel:

Forgetting is a large part of imagination.  In all imagination you leave out and you add.  People deceive themselves about how well they can forget.  It is an art humanity hasn't caught up with yet.

And he read this moving dialog:
Mary: You love me, even though...even though... I'm... goin'... goin'...
(He looks  at her questioningly, and fear gathers in his eyes.)
Mary: Ah, I was thinkin' so...You don't know everything!
Jerry:  Surely to God, Mary, you don't mean that... that... that...
Mary: Now you know all, Jerry, now you know all!
Jerry: My God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that? 
[pause]
Mary:  Yes, Jerry, as you say, I have fallen as low as that.
Jerry:  I didn't mean in that way, Mary...it came on me   so sudden, that I didn't mind what I was sayin'...

Commented Mr. Siegel, "You can't say something suddenly if you haven't thought it."  This play, he said, is the O'Casey hymn to good and evil.

Amidst the ordinary conversation that can go on in any family, there is also tragedy in this play surrounding the character of the son, Johnny.  O'Casey presents him as a distasteful, pitiful, selfish person who complains about not getting his due from the world and his family.  Toward the end of the play, two men from the furniture company are repossessing the furniture when two other men, called "Irregulars" who are fighting in the armed struggle against British rule, burst in to get Johnny for causing the death of Bobby Tancred.

Second Irregular 
(to Johnny):
Come on, Sean Boyle, you're wanted; some of us have a word to say to you.
Johnny:
I'm sick, I can't--what do you want with me?
Second Irregular:  Come on, come on; we've a distance to go, an' haven't much time.  Come on.
Johnny:  I'm an oul' comrade--yous wouldn't shoot an oul' comrade!
Second Irregular:  Poor Tancred was an ‘oul comrade’ o' yours, but you didn't think o' that when you gave him away to the gang that sent his to his grave!

The next stage direction has this:
They drag out Johnny Boyle, and the curtain falls. When it rises again the most of the furniture is gone...

I was moved to see how O'Casey as artist used his imagination to show more meaning in the world, as Mr. Siegel said:
O'Casey had a job of presenting this scene, as poignant as any. It belongs with the higher melodrama.

And he pointed to the technique behind it, saying:
With fullness and economy [O’Casey] shows what imagination is after: adding and leaving out.  Having the furniture gone is like having lives gone....Furniture here is used to tell a story.

The difference between an artist's purpose and the tendency in any of us to lessen the facts for our own comfort or importance was evident, for instance, after his mother learns that Johnny has been killed.  Even as Juno is greatly pained, she says to her daughter and a neighbor, Mrs. Madigan, “Maybe I didn't feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her poor son was found as Johnny's been found now...”  Mr. Siegel commented:
People have felt there was a scantiness of imagination, a paucity of imagination, because you are not sorry for something, and later you are.

I recognized in myself this "scantiness of imagination" about the feelings of others.  Somewhat like Mary, I once preferred arranging the facts about a man to glorify myself, rather than using my imagination to see him more deeply and truly.  Learning from Aesthetic Realism how to use imagination to be exact about who a man is--how my husband is a relation of high and low, rough and smooth, anger and sweetness--is making for pride and pleasure!

After reading the conclusion of this powerful play, Mr. Siegel then looked at two other aspects of imagination--also of the 20th century: the artistic and philosophic schools of Surrealism and Existentialism. And, surprisingly, he related these to a classic English novel: Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers  He read descriptions from The Reader’s Companion to_ World Literature of both Surrealism and Existentialism.  Of Surrealism, which arose in France, it says:

Andre Breton, a psychologist... founded the new school with his first surrealistic manifesto in 924....Essentially, the surrealist strives to present a dream-world, leaving the interpretation of the dream to the audience.” 
Lillian Hornstein, et al, The Readers’ Companion  to World Literature, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1984.)

Surrealism can accent the wild aspect of imagination--it shows how facts can be changed in a way that makes us see ordinary things as we never saw them before--such as the limp watches and clocks of Salvador Dali, and a surprising table setting of Rene Magrite.

"I am trying," Mr. Siegel said, "to make dramatic the fact that the history of [humanity] is the history of imagination."  He then read the description of Existentialism from The Readers Companion, which is a philosophic movement following the freedom of Surrealism, and was more strict.  Existentialism accents the assertion of self:

The central doctrine is that man is what he makes of himself: ...He has a free will, and the responsibility which goes with it.  If he refuses to choose or lets outside forces determine him, he is contemptible. 
Ibid.

Existentialism, Mr. Siegel explained, has “more of the 'get a grip on yourself,'-- [it says] a person can be as severely himself as possible--his own statue defying everything”.   And he compared this to a Surrealist, who, he said, "can take anything unto himself--a brook, a star and change it into himself."

Surrealism and Existentialism, he said, are in fact present "in all imagination, and they are present in Pickwick [by Charles Dickens]."  For instance, he read a passage where Mr. Tupman and Miss Wardle are together in an arbor--

..and there sat the interesting pair, uncared for by all, caring for none, and dreaming only of themselves,-there they sat, in short, like a pair of carefully folded kid gloves--bound up in each other.

Said Mr. Siegel,
This matter of the kid gloves could be in a Surrealist painting.  You have the two kid gloves and call it “L'Amour”

In the next chapter, Mr. Jingle has eloped with Miss Wardle.  Her father furiously exclaims his intention to pursue them, and Mr. Pickwick states forcefully "I'll go with him."  Mr. Siegel said this shows Pickwick is like an Existentialist!  He explained:
There are certain things that occur about the self asserting, itself. Later Mr. Pickwick goes to debtor's prison rather than compromise his principles.  There's something like the assertion of Existentialism in 'I'll go WITH him.'

As Mr. Siegel related Mr. Pickwick to a visual art form, I thought of how much people in our own country, and everywhere in the world, need to learn how to have imagination that puts together self-assertion and being considerate, honestly affected by what other people and things deserve.  Through Aesthetic Realism, the art, the drama of the world can teach us how!



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