Word Painting

Pauline Baynes, original illustration for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Collier Books, 1970. Digitization courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Pauline Baynes, original illustration for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Collier Books, 1970. Digitization courtesy of the Internet Archive.

I thought about it late and then early again this morning, why is it that we lay the book down in the middle of reading it (or else clutch it to us) and stare off, as if to assimilate the beauty found there and integrate it within the here — to keep it here — to make it, so to say, real.

— Jenny Boully, from The Body: An Essay

 

Swimming

I teach a writing course to MFA students in fine arts, who must produce a written thesis about their practice in order to graduate. This fall, a student told me, wistfully, that instead of answering my various writing prompts about how and why she makes paintings, she would prefer to explain which of her paintings she would choose to swim in.

To imagine immersing oneself in a painting is a reverie both of synesthesia, where vision turns into touch, and of pure presence. Using language to create and navigate this fantasy renders the process one of constant translation.

C.S. Lewis stages a version of this fantasy in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Rather than his iconic wardrobe as the portal to Narnia, in this novel the characters enter an alternate world via a painting of a Narnian ship. The painting described immediately serves as an analogue — or an isomorph — for the novel itself.

Creating an impression of reality or conjuring a real-seeming presence is one of our deep desires for written language, and it is built into the very structure of high fantasy novels like Lewis’, where the believability of and gratification in the universe created is at stake.

Aristotle calls this kind of mental activity phantasia, which creates and engages the sensations through the work of the mind or judgment. Where aisthesis is mere sensory experience, phantasia is aisthesis plus cognition. Animals can access aisthesis, but only humans, according to Aristotle, can daydream that they are falling into paintings. This concept of phantasia eventually evolved to become our current model of the creative imagination, but for Aristotle phantasia is crucial for all thought.

C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Collier Books, 1970. Digitization courtesy of the Internet Archive.