Thursday, March 12, 2015

Three Kinds of Imagination

A few months ago while I was skim/skip-reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, that 1980s nerd favorite now almost forgotten (even I, once a card-carrying 80s nerd, had all but forgotten that I still owned a copy), it occurred to me that we might classify imaginations, specifically artistic imaginations, into three categories. Loosely analogizing these categories to art-historical periods, I will call them Classical, Baroque, and Mannerist.

Classical imaginations tend toward simplicity, austerity, elegance. Think of the exquisitely balanced compositions of Poussin's Madonna of the Steps or The Judgment of Solomon, the supersmooth abstraction of Brancusi's Bird in Flight, the stripped-down staccato prose styles of Hemingway or James Ellroy (in Hemingway's case, stripped-down from the lush baroque overplus of Henry James's prose), or the epiphanies of beauty teased out of ordinary pots and pans in Chardin's still life paintings.

Baroque imaginations tend toward complexity, contradiction, even hysteria. We find this tendency in the style of Henry James's fictions and in the matter of Thomas Pynchon's, in Picasso's wildest cubist and surrealist flights, in the overwhelmingly elaborate Capella Sistina in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the enormous, mind-boggling ceiling painting on the vault of St. Ignazio di Loyola (also in Rome), in the impressive authorial outpouring of imaginative gusto in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

Mannerist imaginations tend toward paradox, frustration, impasse. Here we find the inescapable nightmares of Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Trial, the ice-blue untouchable eroticism and interpretive impenetrability of Bronzino's Allegory with Venus and Cupid, the no-exit tragedy of a depressive consciousness spinning round and round itself in  David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person," "Good Old Neon," and much of Infinite Jest; M. C. Escher's inescapable etchings, and the impossible paintings of Rene Magritte.

These are but three kinds of imaginative tendencies. There are many more possibilities (depressive, comic, tragic, etc.), and none of these categories should be taken as anything more than a fuzzy, loose, contingent kind of intellectual shorthand. Powerful imaginations tend to dissolve such categories and set all pigeonholes aflame.

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