Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between Verbena and Lantana

Texas wildflowers

Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between
Verbena and Lantana

Can you imagine what the wildflowers have to say to us—especially now in midwinter—can you imagine all the books they’ve read, all those books that they’re ready to recite back to those who look down upon them?

For what else do the wildflowers do?

They shout from where they stand, they recite and re-sight every color, every number, every combination of color and number clawing its way out of the earth and toward the silent sun.

Yes, the wildflowers shout at the silent sun. They shout about what they’ve read.

We can imagine what they read.

We can imagine what they’ve read about the imagination.

Our ears ache as we await their great recitation.

Verbena: We have seen the man with the red beard looking and leaping and weeping and waving paint in our fields.

Lantana: That was old Van Gogh. He refused to speak to us, and only listened. But he wrote some of his letters while in our fields, and we were able to read them while he wrote. Though we were never able to look down upon him, the way he and all humans do to us, we were occasionally able to look over his shoulder. One of the last things he wrote was:

Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak. But still, my dear brother, there is this that I have always told you, and I repeat it once more with all the earnestness that can be imparted by an effort of a mind diligently fixed on trying to do as well as one can—I tell you again that I shall always consider that you are something other than a simple dealer on Corot, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which even in the cataclysm retain their quietude.

For this is what we have got to, and this is all or at least the chief thing that I can have to tell you at a moment of comparative crisis. At a moment when things are very strained between dealers in pictures by dead artists, and living artists.

Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has halffoundered owing to it—that’s all right—but you are not among the dealers in men so far as I know, and you can choose your side, I think, acting with true humanity, but what’s the use?
(“To Theo, Auvers-sur-Oise, late July, 1890,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 339–40)

Verbena: ole Van Gogh (1853–1890), and at that point in his life, what else did he have left to imagine? Even we, the flowers of the field, occasionally wither. But new things are always sprouting up. After Van Gogh came Karl Kraus (1874–1936), a man who had nothing to do with hunting in woods, farming in fields, or feasting his eyes upon wildflowers. But he had imagination. So when you say you saw Van Gogh writing in the fields, I say I see in my mind’s eye what Kraus had to say about the imagination. I see that he said:

Often I prick my hand with my pen and know only then that I have experienced what is written.

When I read it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting….

Word and substance—that is the only connection I have ever striven for in my life.
(Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976), p. 36)

Lantana: Unless I’m mistaken, Kraus also said, of himself as a writer-artist, that:

An understanding of my work is impeded by a knowledge of my material. People don’t realize that what is there must first be invented, and that it is worth inventing. Nor do they see that a satirist for whom people exist as though he had invented them needs more strength than one who invents persons as though they existed. (Halftruths, p. 34)

Verbena: And it was Kraus who reminded us that, at least when it comes to writing about the truth (though perhaps it’s not applicable to experiencing or understanding certain truths):

The real truths are those that can be invented. (Half Truths, p. 60)

Lantana: Then, though still out of Austria, but after Kraus, emerged Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), a man who may have seen a few flowers on a stroll from Grantchester village to Cambridge town proper. What might he have imagined while walking along the banks of the River Cam? We know only what our cousins living in those fertile fields have told us. That it was Wittgenstein who said:

What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.
(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; see also Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), I. no. 301)

Verbena: Then there are those after Wittgenstein. Remember when C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), a sort of Northern-Irish Oxonian Englishman, appeared in Cambridge? What did he say about the imagination?

Lantana: He said (and I think he meant this both anatomically and musically):

Imagination is the organ of meaning.
(“Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford UP. 1939); reprinted in The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black, (NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 49)

Verbena: And there was also Lewis’s friend and intellectual sparring partner, Owen Barfield (1898–1997), who tried to teach humans what we wildflowers already know. That:

Imagination is the marriage of spirit and sense.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 79)

Lantana: Barfield also said:

Perception is what we see; imagination is how we look at it.
(Barfield, “Matter, Imagination, and Spirit,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (December 1974): 621–29 at 626.)


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