Reading · Teaching

Words and Pictures, or The Forests of Fiction

“Fantasy is a place where it rains.”  When Italo Calvino begins his lecture on Visibility in literature, he begins with an image from Dante’s Paradiso, of pictures raining in to his imagination directly from God.  I went to sleep after reading Umberto Eco’s first Norton lecture, the first of “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” and awoke this morning to that miracle of Southern California weather, The Occasional Drizzle, so I started thinking of rainy images and images raining down.  This is a good time to write.
I have read Calvino’s essay at least a dozen times.  (I know because I’ve taught it annually for over a decade).  My book bears the traces of all these readings—comments and some sketches in red, blue, green, black, and purple ink, and pencil.  He discusses “two types of imaginative process:  the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 83).  My book bears this out, as I diagram what he’s argued and illustrate what he’s described. This has been enough, every year, to send my head in to a tailspin. Which comes first, the text or the image?  And how do we understand one without the other?
When I start small, I remember that when I teach Children’s Literature, I spend some time talking about concretization. I probably should in other classes too, but especially when I’m thinking of kids reading stories, I imagine them building elaborate images in their heads as they read.  This is why movies made from books are often unsatisfying to readers—they’ve already imagined, or concretized the pictures from the descriptions given in the book, and nine times out of ten, they imagine things quite differently from the film’s director, so they spend the movie fussing that “that’s not what the house looked like” or “she’s supposed to be taller/shorter/darker/lighter/happier/smarter/better.”
In the movie case, the text has given rise to images in the reader’s and director’s heads, and then to comment on the movie (or explain our mental images), we need to go back to words to describe it.
We move back and forth from text to image to text to image.  (Presumably the author started with an image he or she was trying to convey too, right?  We know Calvino did sometimes.  He claims some of his novellas, like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount began as images in his head of an empty suit of armor trotting around in Charlemagne’s army and a soldier split in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball.)  So sometimes it goes from the author’s image to the text he writes to the reader’s image to her description or discussion. So how far does this go?  Can we even understand images without using words, or understand words without visualizing them?
Some subjects, certainly.  Some texts don’t create images, just abstractions.  But I will confine myself to thinking of fiction here, and there is almost always some visual element—characters in a setting carrying out certain actions—all of that can be rendered in images.  Maybe we always move from image to text, back and forth like a pinball.  Maybe that’s how we understand the world.  My inner English major wants to argue, to say we go from words to words all the time—that’s literary criticism—but as I think about this relationship, I can see myself imagining the text taking place and then trying to explain it.  We understand words in terms of images, and we understand images by translating them in words.
Calvino says we spend our lives moving back and forth between text and image, so the literature we read needs to be visual in important ways.  Eco describes fiction as a forest we wander through—a world we enter, wend our way through, and leave different.  Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen, experienced, and understood things in our mental cinema while we wound through the words.

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