IMAGINATION IS WITH EVIL
Report of a lecture given by Eli Siegel
by Miriam Weiss
In a chapter of his book Self and World, titled “Imagination, Reality, Aesthetics,” Eli Siegel wrote:
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.
Aesthetic Realism shows Imagination is always concerned with ethics: The way we think about things and people is either in keeping with what is true, or not; good or hurtful to ourselves and others. This was the subject of the lecture Mr. Siegel gave on September 22, 1971 titled, "Imagination Is With Evil," one of a series on Imagination. He began by saying:
Today, in perhaps a deeper way than I ever have, I will speak about the relation of evil and imagination. Either good is imagined or evil is imagined or they both are. At any moment we are doing some imagining about both. What poetry can say about evil and evil about poetry is important....There’s no more important subject than this.
Mr. Siegel discussed three persons important in English Romanticism--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt and Robert Southey. He showed how these writers who so much stand for imagination at its best—they wrote some of the most stirring and beautiful poetry and criticism in the English language—could be used to understand evil in the world and know better how to oppose it. “The thing to be seen” explained Mr. Siegel, “is the versatility of evil,” and he showed that evil is not only sensational, but can be very ordinary too. He said:
Evil is when a button comes off. Evil is when you get something in your mouth you don't like and perhaps can't spit it out. Evil is a joke gone wrong. Evil is a person who doesn't know anything about a subject and yet talks anyway. Evil has strictly speaking, hundreds of forms and goes all the way from the comic to the deadly.
We heard a review of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria that appeared in 1817 in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review. The year before this journal had ridiculed Coleridge's "Christabel," a poem now, along with its author, acknowledged as great in world literature. Said Mr. Siegel:
To see something and not know its value is evil. Whoever the reviewer is I feel he would be quite embarrassed if he knew this were being taken up....There's nothing harder to bear than to know that a century disagrees with you.
The review begins:
Our readers will, perhaps, think it hardly worth while, after the specimen which we have recently exhibited to them of Mr. Coleridge's poetical powers to trouble themselves with inquiring into the history of either his life or opinions. But if he [has] failed to interest them as an author, he will at least amuse, and may even instruct them, as a man.
Commented Mr. Siegel:
The first sentence has complacency in it which is not included in any of the Seven Deadly Sins. There are all kinds of sins Moses left out of the Ten Commandments. ...The writer here has two sins. He doesn't know poetry when he sees it and then pats himself on the back and smirks. The smirk of the triumphantly ignorant wasn't recognized by Moses.
The reviewer quotes Coleridge, who says his early poems were criticized for "excess of ornament," and Mr. Siegel related this to evil as such. He said:
All evil is either a too much or a too little. For example, in writing we have a flashy style, a byzantine style, a turgid, over ornamented & bloated style. As in dress you can wear a certain mingling of yellow, purple, red and mauve in such a way that people forget who you are in the great being submerged by color, and then there can be the wearing of what can be called a pretentious burlap....Evil, (he said) can come in many ways and a fault in taste is like a fault of ethics.
As a person who went for “the pretentious burlap” school of dress, I have come to see that my once favorite color combination of drab on drab came largely from my desire to see the world itself as drab and have my response to it muted and dull. I was seeing through this class that what we can see as merely a matter of taste is inseparable from our ethics. The reviewer thinks he is so discriminating, but in being too pleased with his own opinion, he misses seeing large value. For instance, while he admits some goodness in Coleridge's early sonnets, he mistakenly sees them as superior to Coleridge’s later great poetry which includes "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel". And then the reviewer commends Coleridge for one of the things he was most wrong about--his unjust defense of the poet Robert Southey.
Southey in his youth had been inspired by the French Revolution and in 1794, passionate about the Rights of Man, he wrote “Wat Tyler,” a powerful poetic drama fiercely critical of economic injustice in England. However, later, he grew increasingly conservative and in 1813 became poet laureate. Hazlitt, Byron and others were rightly angry, not so much that Southey changed, but that he was now viciously attacking persons including Byron and Shelley for writing as he once did, calling their works subversive. In 1817 “Wat Tyler” was reprinted without his consent and he was mortified. “Southey,” Mr. Siegel said, “was tormented by his desire to defend the economic ways of the English government.” He explained that Coleridge felt there was something strange about Southey talking the way he did, but didn’t want to clearly see or say this. He said:
We have two ways of evil. Either Coleridge did not wholly know, which is in the field of evil, or he's being insincere. I think both are here...Not being able to see what we feel is evil, not being able to say it is evil
Mr. Siegel read some of Coleridge's sentences praising Southey, including this one: "As a writer he has uniformly made his talents subservient to the best interest of humanity." Coleridge was making something nicer than he knew it was.
I was moved as Eli Siegel, who valued Coleridge enormously, said of this:
As one looks back on it after 154 years, it is unbearable hogwash. Coleridge [here] is no judge." "We come", (he said) "to the hardest kind of criticism--the criticism of another person. I think all in all it's harder than the criticism of art."