Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part IV: Visibility

Fantasy Sketch - "a little archi-doodle" - by Sketchy-G

Fantasy Sketch – “a little archi-doodle” – by Sketchy-G

What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the “civilization of the image”? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?…We are bombarded today by such a quantity of images that we can no longer distinguish direct experience from what we have seen for a few seconds on television. The memory is littered with bits of pieces of images, like a rubbish dump, and it is more and more unlikely that any one from among so many will succeed in standing out.

If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.

Hello, I am Zin! And we come now to the fourth Memo, Visibility – which concerns itself with the translation from the imagined image of the writer, to words on a page, to the imagined image of the reader! That is a treacherous journey, and it is not surprising that writers vary in ability and techniques to do this!

I see four points of view here: Calvino describes how other writers, based on their work, have accomplished this; he talks about his own writing. Then I will talk about my own writing which is of course a lot less interesting but is how I might learn to do better, and finally I will bring in Richard Osgood and the process he used to write his wonderful story “Millennium House” (which has served as my standard and inspiration for all the Memos)!

Calvino starts out with Dante and the Purgatory of the Divine Comedy; he paraphrases thusly:

O imagination, you who have the power to impose yourself on our faculties and our wills, stealing us away from the outer world and carrying us off into an inner one, so that even if a thousand trumpets were to sound we would not hear them, what is the source of the visual messages that you receive, if they are not formed from sensations deposited in the memory?

Then he brings in a Balzac work that sounds wonderful, I have never heard of it before (not surprising), “The Unknown Masterpiece” which began in 1831 as a story (“the elderly painter Frenhofer’s perfect picture, in which only a woman’s foot emerges from a chaos of color, from a shapeless fog, is both understood and admired by the artist’s two colleagues, Pourbus and Nicholas Poussin”). But Balzac expanded it to a book in which the colleagues do not understand, and Frenhofer “lives for his ideal, but he is condemned to solitude.” In the final 1837 version, “Frenhofer is a madman doomed to lock himself up with his supposed masterpiece, then to burn it and commit suicide.”

What a wonderful and strange and sad progression! “Balzac rejected the literature of fantasy, which for him had meant art as the mystical knowledge of everything, and turned to the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced that he was expressing the secret of life. The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realizing.”

The key work that starts to clarify things for me is not fiction but The Empire of the Imaginary by Jean Starobinski, a historical survey of imaginative literature! That sounds like fun, yes? Here he introduces the difference between Freud and Jung: is imagination internal and isolated, or external and connective? Do we imagine things based on our own knowledge of the world, or do we use it to connect with a “world soul” related to the collective unconscious? As usual, Calvino finds himself in both camps: he thinks he is more internal/Freudian, but realizes he is actually external/Jungian. And he does not stop there!

Still there is another definition in which I recognize myself fully, and that is the imagination as a repertory of what is potential, what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has never existed, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed.

At this point I begin to wonder: is this Visibility Memo really about Imagination? Maybe both?

He draws on another work, Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, in which the reader is asked to imagine him or her self as seeing God, seeing the Holy Family, being present at the Nativity, in order to comprehend God better.

I find this truly wonderful, not as a religious exercise but because I have tended to do a similar exercise in some of my stories to know what the character is actually seeing and feeling, so I have a better idea of what is actually happening, what the character is going through, not thinking up words to write but actually experiencing in my almost-asleep imagination what is happening to a character! It usually involves almost falling asleep, which is a trick I picked up after reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. Butler thinks the best writing could be done in that half-asleep state when conscious control eases up; of course the full power of the awake mind needs to be used later, but it is the creativity of the dream state he loves to capture in early stages of forming a story. I always thought of it as a way of getting inside my own mind, not the Jungian collective unconscious (which to me has always seemed like a lot of hooey, sorry) but who knows? Then again, the story I most used this on was not a screaming success, but I think it did help a great deal with several of the scenes.

This brings in the next work Calvino mentions, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter:

Think, for instance, of a writer who is trying to convey certain ideas which to him are contained in mental images. He isn’t quite sure how those images fit together in his mind, and he experiments around, expressing things first one way and then another, and finally settles on some version. But does he know where it all came from? Only in a vague sense. Much of the source, like an iceberg, is deep underwater, unseen—and he knows that.

He began this kind of imagery early on, by looking at Italian versions of the Katzenjammer Kids and Felix the Cat comic strips before he could read! In fact he says he did not get more out of them once he could read; I am not surprised he was able to imagine better stories than the original captions!

The work I did later in life, extracting stories from the mysterious figures of the tarot and interpreting the same figure in a different way each time, certainly had its roots in my obsessive porings over pages and pages of cartoons when I was a child.

He is talking about “fantastical” literature, but I have often seen a writer claim a Realism story was inspired by a single image – two in this blog come to mind right now, first, “Someone Ought To Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” which began with an image “of a man in uniform carrying a little girl on his shoulders”, and second, “The Rules Are The Rules” by Adam Foulds: “The story began with a single image: a priest who longs to be a father holds an infant for baptism.” These images actually play a fairly small role in the finished story, but creating the moment for them to occur and the aftermath is fundamental, because I think they provide a direction and focus for the story.

The artist Frenhofer from the early Balzac work, then, is able to connect his inner images with others, but in the later versions as Balzac changed his mind, is not, and it brings him to despair! And St. Ignatius used the imagination as a way to connect with the divine, though I would imagine he felt the Divine did a major part of the work in that endeavor! And for Dante, I think he saw it more as going from external to internal, bringing the external world to a more personal, interior understanding!

As for Richard, rather than his story “Millennium House” (which is excellent and should by all means be read! Go ahead, it is flash, very very short, and I will be here when you get back!) it is his experience of writing it, detailed in an interview he was kind enough to do with me for a previous post, that I see relating to this Visibility! Some of his most pertinent observations include his initial image:

It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition…. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman…. This house and this story is about the non-place of place.

…and his thoughts on what is somewhat related to the internal/Freudian vs external/Jungian debate (though it is really more about crossing the enormous boundary between “you” and “other” – until we learn to record and interpret brain waves we can only know what is in another mind by what they do or say to convey it):

Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.

So I think Richard is more of the Jungian school! I am also fascinated by his process of reading in different chairs depending on the work; this seems to me to be a wonderful way to prime the pump, so to speak, to be receptive to the image that is being conveyed:

I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys.

I have learned so much about writing and reading from this short little flash he wrote that is so quintessentially Calvino; I hope others can as well!

On to Multiplicity!

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4 responses to “Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part IV: Visibility

  1. Another excellent rumination of Calvino’s Six Memos, Zin. I still intend to comment further but ‘free’ time has been somewhat fleeting lately . . .

    • Hello, Richard! do not worry, the posts will be here whenever you have the thought, “Oh, this is something I should tell Zin!” I would love to make sure I am interpreting your stories and your comments correctly! thank you for getting me started on this path! I have so much reading to do after finishing the next Memo!

    • Hello Marko! That is so funny! I wish I had thought of that line! When Richard told me about the different chairs, I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard!

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