I Learned about Imagination

By Miriam Mondlin


In “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics,” from Self and World, Eli Siegel shows that there are two kinds of imagination. He writes:

“If imagination is necessary and inevitable, and if, nevertheless, imagination may lead to catastrophe, then a careful study of that which differentiates felicitous from calamitous imagination is required.”

In studying this, I looked at Dr. Karl Menninger’s 1930 book, The Human Mind, at the effect of studying Aesthetic Realism on my own imagination, and at Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Eli Siegel writes about imagination:

“At the present time in America, wonder and matter-of-fact live on two sides of the railroad. 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. Imagination and aesthetics make for the meeting of wonder and matter-of-fact and therefore if we do not respect imagination and aesthetics consciously, we are permitting the seeds of personality disjunction to operate.”

This describes me as I was growing up. When I was behind the locked bathroom door, I saw myself as a princess. I would imagine servants fanning me a la the movies, while I sat in the bathtub giving orders·and charming princes were falling all over themselves to get to me. I had a grand Queen Mother and a King Father who adored me; and not all these ordinary, troubled Brooklyn people. My mother, sisters, and brother would knock, knock, knock at the door, but I would delay leaving this imagined world, so much better, I thought, than the one outside the door. At the same time, I had many fears.

I found that feelings of royal parentage, which I thought were mine alone, are frequent among children. In “Fantasies of Extraordinary Birth and Royal Lineage,” from The Human Mind, Karl Menninger writes:

“Since everyone fancies himself some kind of hero or heroine, …there prevails very widely in childhood a secret theory that one is not after all a member of one’s family, but an illegitimate or adopted child, probably of noble parentage.”

It was not until I studied Aesthetic Realism that I learned how these imagined journeys into a royal world of my own where I had contempt for people, made for fear. Eli Siegel describes the cause: “Where imagination is wrong ethics will be. One does not have a disproportionate picture of the world without having a disproportionate evaluation.” Part of my disproportionate evaluation was that I made my family the world; then I dismissed them because they weren’t good enough for “her highness,” and It left me feeling quite alone. “The seeds of personality disjunction,” as Eli Siegel writes, were operating.

I thought the eyes in the large portraits of my grandmother and grandfather hanging over the piano in the living room, were moving and watching me. I would cry and make my mother or sisters sit near my bed until I fell asleep. I thought the panelling on the bedroom wall would somehow open up, and hands would come out and strangle me through the bedpost. I would watch the wall in terror. I was about eight years old, and it lasted a long time. Eli Siegel says this:

“There is Luther Davison who quite often sees the eyes of persons about him staring fiercely and accusingly. Now Luther has a deep sense of having done something wrong …. Could he see that he hates or has a contempt for people and that something in him is telling him that he is guilty in doing so, then the compulsory symbol which is the accusing eyes of the people he meets, would not be necessary.”

In Aesthetic Realism lessons with Eli Siegel, I learned about contempt in myself. For example, I had been afraid of the water, and also fascinated by it from the time I was a child. In 1959, I went on a trip to Cape Cod with my husband. It was winter, and the beach was isolated as we walked along the oceanside. Suddenly, I began to feel as if the waves were going to overwhelm me. I imagined myself running as the waves thunderously lapped at my heels. I told about this at an Aesthetic Realism lesson, and Eli Siegel said:

“Flowing water can make some people sick because on the one hand it does have all that calmness and smoothness, and on the other, obviously, it is in motion; so our desire to separate things is fought. Occasionally, it can get one into a fit.”

He showed my ethical unconscious was telling me, “Miriam, don’t go away from the world. I will send the waves after you.” I did not have this fear again.

Eli Siegel writes in “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics”:

“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 depends on how much we can see the world as what it is.”

The world as it is and the world truly imagined are together in one of the most loved books, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is said that the story came to be on a sunny afternoon during a boating party on an English lake; with the three Liddell sisters, one of whom was Alice, and the Reverend Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the name of Lewis Carroll. The children pressed him for a story, and he told how Alice goes down the rabbit hole, and comes to Wonderland. There she meets all sorts of people and animals, ordinary and strange. Alice becomes strange to herself, getting large and small without notice.

John Tenniel illustration for The Pool of TearsIn 1954, Eli Siegel gave a series of lectures on Alice in Wonderland, and spoke of the opposites Carroll was putting together: the snug and expansive. He said: “Imagination is like a wild horse on a sleeping street.” The ordinary and strange are magnificently one in this sentence of Eli Siegel, and it is true to the imagination of Lewis Carroll.


It is said that many episodes in Alice in Wonderland arose from incidents in Lewis Carroll’s life. For example, in The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, we are told that on June 17, 1863, Carroll went on a boating excursion with other people. A heavy rain began to fall, and they all had to go ashore. There, they found an isolated cottage, where the children were left to dry themselves, while Lewis Carroll and Reverend Duckworth tried to find a way back. In “The Pool of Tears” there is this wonderful use of imagination:

It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded withthe birds and animals that had fallen into it: there was a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore.

John Tenniel illustration of Alice and the other creatures.

Martin Gardner annotates:

“The Duck is Reverend Duckworth; the Lory (an Australian parrot) is Lorina Liddell; Edith Liddell is the Eaglet; and the Dodo is Lewis Carroll himself. When Carroll stammered he pronounced his name ‘Do-Do-Dodgson,'”

The persons in this party included two of Lewis Carroll’s sisters and an aunt—the “other curious creatures”—and Alice Liddell. The creatures argue with Alice about how to get dry, and Carroll writes: “After a few minutes it seemed quite natural for Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them.”

I had changed people in my imagination for the glory of myself. Lewis Carroll changes them for the glory of the world to show the way the world truly is. I believe he would have loved Eli Siegel for showing how imagination can have wonder and matter-of-fact walk on the same side of the railroad, for this is what Lewis Carroll achieved in Alice in Wonderland. Eli Siegel’s imagination was magnificent and comprehensive. It stands for the world. I love him for it.

This article by Miriam Mondlin was first published on June 3, 1981, in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue #426.