Monday, November 22, 2010

Italo Calvino: visbility, imagination, Balzac

Of Italo Calvino's six lectures (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, one of which I've previously written considered*), "Visibility" is the richest. He considers imagination, a writer's most essential and complex tool, in all six lectures but here he bears down on the image as spark, and looks ahead to our millennium, more image than substance (or so I say) and challenge the imagination with its bombardment of images.

Writing about Balzac he acknowledges the impossibility of fully transferring the image imagined to the page. . . 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.

Since Balzac is pioneer and master of realism, I assume he made a good choice. The fact that he made a choice is important and enviable. To choose he had to envision, however incompletely, his new direction. He had a vision of the way.

Earlier in this lecture, Calvino identifies imagination as springing from and connecting to Plato's forms, an ultimate perfection we're doomed (or lucky) to incompletely achieve. Art is, in a sense, the history of the effort to create the impossible, though artists like Balzac, Michelangelo, Sappho, Cassatt have made me wonder if some aren't lucky enough to have their hand guided by angels. Or if the hierarchy of angels guiding is evident in the final draft. Visibility is not the same as vision, however. Calvino challenges us to make visible as much of our vision as we're able.

So here's one of Calvino's definitions of imagination. I urge you to read the full lecture. This posting is an imperfect reproduction of a more perfect form.

The poet's mind, and at a few decisive moments the mind of the scientist, works according to a process of association of images that is the quickest way to link and to choose between the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible. The imagination is a kind of electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose, or simply the most interesting, pleasing, or amusing.

Quotes from Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium,Vintage International, tr. Patrick Creagh.
*See previous posting Italo Calvino: immeasureable goals, dare.

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