|Note: This is a report on
an Aesthetic Realism class for Consultants and Assocoates taught by Class
Chairman Ellen Reiss, October 13 & 18, 1996
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,
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,
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
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:
purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to encourage one to have imagination that
is friendly to oneself.
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."
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.
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.
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:
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.
he read this moving dialog:
love me, even though...even though... I'm... goin'... goin'...
her questioningly, and fear gathers in his eyes.)
I was thinkin' so...You don't know everything!
to God, Mary, you don't mean that... that... that...
you know all, Jerry, now you know all!
God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?
Jerry, as you say, I have fallen as low as that.
didn't mean in that way, Mary...it came on me so sudden, that
I didn't mind what I was sayin'...
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.
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
on, Sean Boyle, you're wanted; some of us have a word to say to you.
sick, I can't--what do you want with me?
on, come on; we've a distance to go, an' haven't much time. Come
an oul' comrade--yous wouldn't shoot an oul' comrade!
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!
next stage direction has this:
drag out Johnny Boyle, and the curtain falls. When it rises again the most
of the furniture is gone...
was moved to see how O'Casey as artist used his imagination to show more
meaning in the world, as Mr. Siegel said:
had a job of presenting this scene, as poignant as any. It belongs with
the higher melodrama.
he pointed to the technique behind it, saying:
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.
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:
have felt there was a scantiness of imagination, a paucity of imagination,
because you are not sorry for something, and later you are.
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
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:
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.”
Hornstein, et al, The Readers’ Companion to World Literature, (New
York, NY: Penguin, 1984.)
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.
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:
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.
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
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--
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.
matter of the kid gloves could be in a Surrealist painting. You have
the two kid gloves and call it “L'Amour”
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:
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
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!