Library Talk: In defense of images

There’s a tendency in the literary world to disparage movies and graphic novels as “lazy,” or “un-intellectual.”

I’m writing on the eve of departure for my grandmother’s funeral. Grandma suffered from dementia. She didn’t know who I was for almost a decade before she died.

The grandma I miss, however, is the sweet, jolly lady who drove up from California every year to dote on her little Canadian grandkids; who took us swimming, read us stories, and most importantly to the theme of this column, taught me to paint.

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Grandma held an Art Degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She painted landscapes, still-life and scenes of her children. In my adolescence, just before the onset of her dementia, she introduced me to oil paints. I still paint, though my subject matter tends more towards griffins, selkies and Vikings than toddlers on seesaws.

Visual arts and literary arts are inextricably linked and forever at odds. I’m a librarian with a History in Art degree, so I think about this topic a lot.

A novel and a painting both aim to reflect reality, while augmenting that reality with a creative, emotional or philosophical element that’s up to the writer or painter (and the interpretation of the consumer). The novel and the painting are each perfectly suited to this goal in some ways and perfectly incapable in others.

I once painted Ragnarok, the battle at the end of days in Norse mythology. I think I did a fair job of capturing the death and destruction, and of capturing Odin overseeing the carnage. Anyone who looks at the painting can tell it’s an epic fantasy battle. The problem is, however, unless you’re familiar with Norse mythology, you won’t know what the story is behind this battle, who the characters are or what’s really going on. A dozen people could write a dozen different captions for the painting.

On the other hand, a dozen people could read the same description of Ragnarok and come up with a dozen different illustrations. However accurately a text describes a scene, every reader is going to visualize something different.

Unless you don’t visualize anything at all.

This brings me to a conversation I had with a friend while jogging. Apropos of nothing, he asked:

 “How do you imagine things?”

I didn’t know what he meant.

 “In novels,” he explained, “writers describe what places look like, smell like and sound like. Can you actually imagine any of that when you read?”

I gaped at him (as much as possible while running). Of course I could imagine it. Every time I reread The Hobbit, it’s like a film reel behind my eyes. I see my little Bilbo in photographic detail, hear the wolves at the Battle of the Five Armies, and smell the smoke of Laketown.

My friend explained that none of those visualizations are true for him. He understands intellectually what authors mean when they describe a scene, but that doesn’t translate into a sensory experience. Like other people with aphantasia, he doesn’t have a functioning “mind’s eye;” he can’t visualize things that are not in front of him.

Does that mean he doesn’t appreciate creative output? Not at all. He devours graphic novels, and rewatches movies far more voraciously than I do. My theory is that because words alone don’t conjure mental images for him, my friend has an increased drive to absorb fully formed imagery.

 There’s a tendency in the literary world to disparage movies and graphic novels as “lazy,” or “un-intellectual.” One day, I’ll write a column specifically addressing this attitude, but the point I want to make here is that words and images are both intrinsically incapable of conveying a complete message. It’s up to us, as individual cultural consumers, to decide which pieces of the message we want to fill in for ourselves: the text or the pictures.

Danielle is the Assistant Librarian – Programming and Outreach at the Brandon Public Library. You can contact Danielle directly at Danielle@wmrl.ca.

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