A Man’s Imagination: What Makes It a Friend or Foe?

Anthony TrollopeKevin Fennell gave this paper on the subject of imagination at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. In it, he discusses the life of the important English novelist Anthony Trollope.


A man’s imagination is his friend when it is a means of furthering his deepest desire: to like the world, and it is his foe when he uses it to falsify, degrade, or dislike the world for the purpose of glorifying himself. I’m grateful to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for teaching me this, enabling me to change from a dull, suspicious person, to a man with a life of eager interest, honest pleasure and self-respect.

1. Good and Bad Imagination Arise from Two Different Purposes
In a 1952 lecture, Mr. Siegel asked:

What is imagination? One of the answers to that question is: imagination is that which changes the world in order to see better what it is…The other is what changes the world in order to make us better able to live without it; that is bad imagination.[1]

To want to “see better what [the world] is,” is part of our most fundamental purpose: to like the world. To want to be “better able to live without it” comes from the hope to have contempt. Growing up, I did both. When my Fourth Grade class went on a tour of the big Main Post Office in Yonkers, I stood in awe as a postal worker showed us mail coming in on trucks, then streaming through a canceling machine at lightning speed; clerks reading addresses on letters and sorting them into compartments of big cases—each representing a different part of the U.S.—and as he explained these letters were then put into corresponding sacks and sent to those places, where they would be sorted again—first by city, then by zone, then street, house, and delivered! Into our minds came the picture of something beautifully structured; having, in a sense, a life of its own—the postal system—expanding and contracting, mingling and separating, personal and impersonal, far-flung and immediate. I think that here my imagination was in behalf of something good because, as I pictured all these things occurring, it was in order to see them accurately, and this is why I felt proud.

But more often, I used my imagination to spurn the world and people. In “Imagination, Reality and Aesthetics,” a chapter of Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes:

One of the earliest and most frequent things that can happen to a human mind is to see the world as inimical. The world is a constant partner of every one of us. We are compelled to have pictures of it…Yet it is likely that the object with which, in some way, we are compelled to join ourselves is disliked or feared by us because we feel that giving everything the object has to it, will interfere with our own comfort, prerogative, importance.[2]

I did see the world as inimical and as something I should evade. As the fourth and youngest child in a pretty tumultuous family, I felt other people with their problems and confusions were an interference with my own “comfort, prerogative, importance,”—and I deeply held myself apart. At the same time, I used the sizable praise I got for being “well-behaved” to imagine I had almost a holy kind of goodness that simply did people good to be around me. When, as an altar boy at Saint Anthony’s Church, I genuflected, bowed my head, rang the bells or swung the incense, I imagined people getting inspiration not so much from a divine source as from me.

Other people—schoolmates, for example—who didn’t seem to recognize my special qualities, I saw as unkind. Here my imagination was my foe because I was so bent on this false picture of myself and others, it made me lonely and nervous—it also made me mean. I remember hoping a boy who was popular had something wrong with him physically, or problems at home, or did poorly at a subject I was good in. I also daydreamed about coming out in a blaze of glory and “showing them all,” imagining myself a rock star with screaming fans, and students from my school struggling in the crowd for me to recognize them—then graciously saying hello and forgiving them. In trying to “do without” the world as it truly was, I became bored, dull-minded and painfully isolated from people and things around me. By my mid-twenties I had boxed myself into a narrow existence with few friends, few interests, and a constant feeling of shame I didn’t understand.

Then, in 1981, I met Aesthetic Realism and learned about a way of mind that had interfered with my life. “Do you feel this is a world that’s been friendly to you?” my consultants asked in my first consultation. I answered, “For the most part.”

Consultants: So, there’s some reservation. Where not?

KF: Just from individuals who might not be as friendly as others.

Cons: You know, some people have said, “I would like the world if it weren’t for people.”

They explained that contempt can be simply an inner presumption one is superior and justified in dismissing most of humanity. They asked:

Do you recognize anything of yourself in these lines from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Despising,/ For you, the city, thus I turn my back;/ There is a world elsewhere.”[3]

I did recognize myself. I was given assignments: one was to write about thoughts my mother may have to herself, another was a biography of my father before I was born. I also learned to see with new eyes the work I did at the Post Office—which, as a child I had such wonder about and now had come to see as a drudgery. In one consultation, I complained about the monotony of sorting letters to the same old addresses over and over. My consultants asked:

Do you think every one of the people to whom those letters are addressed is real?—is more like you than different?—and will have an emotion when he or she gets it, maybe of surprise, maybe irritation, sorrow, even joy?

 That night when I went to work, I had a whole different feeling about the mail. I was encouraged to study postal history, which I learned dates back to the ancient Assyrians, and have been thrilled to see how deeply it has been an expression of man’s imagination: the desire of people to receive—and also convey—a picture of what is happening in another part of the world. Words can hardly describe the pleasure and excitement I felt—and the relief!—at no longer being strapped to myself, but able to use my thought to try to see the insides of other people—in my family, among my coworkers, or in a person I met for the first time. Learning to use my imagination to know another person as she truly is enabled me to fall deeply, excitedly in love the woman who is now my wife and dear friend, Carol McCluer. This is real romance, and I’m so grateful I feel it, and that we’re studying the greatest education in the world!

2. Imagination in an Important Man of Letters
The English novelist, Anthony Trollope, (1815-1882), has pleased generations of readers—and I am one of them—with the depth, humor and keen imagination of his descriptions of life in the 19th Century. He wrote 47 novels while serving a full career as an official in the British Post Office. The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne described his writing as:

…just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth, and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business.[4]

Henry James wrote of Trollope’s “happy, instinctive perception of human varieties” and says that he has “helped the heart of man to know itself.”[5] And Trollope himself wrote:

I have always desired to…make men and women walk upon [the earth] just as they do here among us, —with not more of excellence, nor with exaggerated baseness,—so that my readers might recognise human beings like to themselves.[6]

This stands for the imagination of art, which is a man’s friend. Yet he also used his imagination in ways that troubled him. In his autobiography, he tells that his father, Thomas Trollope, while having some claim to “gentle standing” in the “upper class” of English society, failed in business, and brought the family to financial ruin, causing him—Anthony—deep humiliation. This is a hard situation, but I believe that, like me, the young Anthony’s resentment at not being seen as distinguished and special made him disagreeable to others—while he perceived them as hostile to him. “I was never spared,” he writes:

I had not only no friends, but was despised by all my companions.…As I look back it seems to me that all hands were turned against me.…I was allowed to join in no play.[7]

Yet he hints, self-critically, that there was something in his own mind that may have contributed to the cause: “I know that I skulked, and was odious in the eyes of those I envied.”

Reading this, I thought of the way I often used what I saw as other people’s not appreciating me to skulk and be stony. In an Aesthetic Realism Class discussion some years ago, I spoke about this, and Ellen Reiss asked me:

Do you think there is a desire in people to be stony? Is it a way of preserving an idea of oneself?

I said Yes.

ER: Do you think the minute we have more feeling, we think something is running us—we aren’t running ourselves?

KF: Yes. I think I feel something like that.

And Ms. Reiss encouraged me to see that the answer is aesthetic: that in wanting to be affected, changed by the feelings of other people, we are using our imagination in behalf of justice and we respect ourselves. I began right away to see evidence for this—and I’m grateful to see more with every month and year. I thank Ellen Reiss for her good will; for having—and for teaching others how to have—a kind, accurate imagination.

3. The Ordinary Daydream: Friend or Foe?
It seems that Anthony Trollope did what many other men have done: he used his imagination to make a world more to his liking. He writes:

I was always going about with some castle in the air firmly built within my mind. …For weeks, for months…from year to year…I would carry on the same tale.…I myself was of course my own hero.…I was never a learned man, nor even a philosopher. But I was a very clever person, and beautiful young women used to be fond of me.[8][35]

He tells how, during his first years as a clerk in London’s main Post Office, he went through the motions of what society seemed to expect of him while inwardly despising his circumstances and carrying on this world of fantasy in his mind. Yet he was more conscious than many people that this hurt him: “There can, I [think], hardly be a more dangerous mental practice.”[9] At the same time he yearned to write novels, but felt unable to begin, and cursed himself for his “idleness.” In the Imagination chapter, Mr. Siegel describes a division in our selves that makes a person’s imagination inevitably his foe when he writes:

A person behaves with groomed propriety outwardly; but in his bed, or in revery, or in just thinking to himself, there is another world. And these two worlds are seen as neighbors who need never meet.[10]

He describes “Julius Harris, a worker for the federal post office…of Troy, New York” who suffers from insomnia. Although Harris “likes to put on a dignified front in every situation,” Mr. Siegel writes, “there are some thoughts in himself that he has never looked at.” These include imagining himself the ruler of a large Pacific island and commanding people there; also having “the most prominently alluring females of the universe…at his beck to do what he wanted with.” The desire in Julius Harris to keep separate his everyday life “of marriage and post office” and the imaginary world within himself is the cause, Mr. Siegel explains, of his painful insomnia and also of his difficulty in writing fiction, which he’s been trying to do.

When, at age 26, Anthony Trollope boldly took a new job that entailed moving to the Western region of Ireland and traveling among the various post offices there to ensure their efficiency, I believe he was trying to break out of the inward brooding for which he disliked himself. He loved this job, made many new friendships, met and married Rose Heseltine, of an English family living there, and soon found he was able to do what he’d so much longed to do: He began his first novel, The MacDermots of Ballycloran, set in Ireland. “From that time,” he writes, “who has had a happier life than mine?” He says the difference between his former reveries and his imagination now as novelist was that, “I have discarded the hero of my early dreams, and have been able to lay my own identity aside.” I think rather than “laying it aside,” he found his identity in wanting more to see the world and the feelings of people as of his very self. Writes Mr. Siegel:

The difference between the imagination of art and the imagination of everyday life is that where in art imagination serves to show the self by showing the world, imagination in “life” is used to make the self comfortable, without necessarily showing it.[11]

4. Good Will and the Imagination of Art
I first wanted to know about Anthony Trollope after learning of our common employment in the Post Office. This was another place where he used his imagination in a way that was very good. He had a big desire to improve the postal system, riding over thousands of miles, studying delivery routes and how to make them as efficient as possible. The familiar letter-boxes we find on street corners today were first conceived of and implemented in England through the inspiration of Anthony Trollope. He received many promotions (returning to England where he lived the rest of his life), because of the energy and innovative thought he brought to his work. He says:

I had imbued myself with a thorough love of letters,—I mean the letters which are carried by the post,—and was anxious for their welfare as though they were all my own.[12]

For our imaginations to be our friends—to ever be happy in our own skins—we need to have what Eli Siegel called, “the awareness of feelings had by others.” And we can learn from the art of the novel. In his lecture, “The Novel: Imagination,” Mr. Siegel said:

Imagination is required to go beyond ourselves…to be fair to what we do not take to be ourselves…To watch a person in action changing, [while] being the person he was, is one of the things we should do, which is why a novel is important. We learn about people.

Anthony Trollope’s novels are a rich store of knowledge about people. Beginning with his Barchester series, his books were widely read throughout his lifetime because of the vividness with which he rendered his many deeply conceived and memorable characters including Mrs. Proudie, Lily Dale, and Archdeacon Grantly.

In his novels, Trollope was a keen critic of selfishness, greed, and the horrible snobbishness of the English “class” system. In Castle Richmond, set in Ireland during the devastating famine that took place there in the late 1840’s, he writes powerfully, showing the patronizing cruelty of the British landowners towards the poor and hungry Irish people. Among the shockingly inadequate measures the British government implemented at that time was to sell—not give—the people ground-up Indian corn, in which the husks were also ground, making for sharp toothpick-like pieces. In one scene, a poor Irish woman carrying two babies and followed by four other hungry children comes in to a “soup kitchen” organized by well-to-do English ladies. Opening a dirty handkerchief she points to the cooked Indian corn it contains:

‘Feel of that,’ said the woman: ‘would you like to be ’ating that yourself now?’

     ‘I don’t think you have cooked it quite enough,’ said Clara, looking into the woman’s face, half with fear, half with pity, putting, as she spoke, her pretty delicate finger down into the nasty daubed mess of parboiled flour.

     ‘Cooked it!’ said the woman scornfully… ‘would you like to be putting sharp points like that into your children’s bellies?’[13]

The desire to see the feelings of other people is the most urgent necessity for people now. It is the one thing that can lessen and end anger in marriages, the cruelty of economic injustice, racism, war. It is the imagination America must have to really be a friend to other nations and to herself. Aesthetic Realism is the education that can demonstrate to people the difference between imagination that is our friend and that which is our own worst enemy, and make a convincing, lasting case for imagination on behalf of respect for the world and people. That is why it has got to be known by everyone.


[1] The Novel: Imagination lecture by Eli Siegel, November 10, 1952

[2] Eli Siegel, Self and World, New York, Definition Press,  1981, p.146

[3] William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, III,iii,133-135

[4] Pope-Hennessy, James, Anthony Trollope, London, Phoenix Press,  1971,       pp. 22-23

[5] Pope-Hennessy, James, Anthony Trollope, p.22

[6] Trollope, Anthony, An Autobiography (Illustrated), Alan Sutton Publishing,       Gloucester, England, 1987, pp. 107-109

[7] Trollope, Anthony An Autobiography, pp. 4,9,11

[8] Trollope, Anthony, An Autobiography, p.35

[9] Trollope, Anthony, An Autobiography, p.35

[10] Eli Siegel, Self and World, p.149

[11] Eli Siegel, Self and World, p.151

[12] Trollope, Anthony, An Autobiography, p.203

[13] Pope-Hennessy, James, Anthony Trollope, p.119

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