Invisible Things

invisible things


Last night I again found myself absorbed in one of Miyazaki’s spectacles (Porco Rosso) and I remain awestruck at his pure love of flight. I’m delighted by his portrayal of the unity of man with technological instrument – in this case, planes. It is so fitting for his chosen medium that he loves what he loves. Animation is perfectly equipped for the display of spatial relations, movement, light, speed, action. However, if we have found ourselves inheriting a different tool than animation (let’s say the written word), what things ought we to love, to turn our attention towards, in order to best describe the world according to the nature of the tools we have been given?

Words must be concerned with invisible things. The description of spatial relation is important to any story, of course, but it is not the glory of words. It is much more satisfying to watch animation of planes in flight than it would be to read a book about planes in flight, because flight is a kind of movement – it is itself a kind of animation. That’s not to exclude planes from being literary subjects. We are all literature’s loyal subjects. Thankfully the word when honored carefully is in turn a caring ruler, and makes its own contribution to the common good. Literature’s primary gift (and thus the writer’s primary concern) is the consideration of invisible things.

Invisible things may include: memory, history, sound, rhythm, smell, taste, texture, pain, bond, weight, love, desire, thought, ought, honor, pressure, dream, hope, understanding, sympathy, death, the dead, and God.

Some of these things may be displayed with visual representation, of course. Cartoonists, painters, and iconographers are very clever at arranging visual symbols and relationships in order to communicate interior truths. Nevertheless, it’s inherently more difficult to convey something invisible, such as someone’s interior monologue, with painting or film. This is why narration in film can be quite annoying. We didn’t buy tickets to hear narration – we want to see pigs fly.

The glory of the written word is to describe invisible things and hidden interiors. It can explore particular systems of significance in more detail and depth than images are able without great gymnastic effort. This is why God gave us sacred scripture instead of a sacred scrapbook.

We must note that God is a God of words: creating the world with a word, he also provided believers with precise words to be believed. He also gave us a certain kind of image: people. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. As are we. So images are very important, but for religious practice, the kind of images we are suppose to be creating are living ones – you know, babies. Religious life must deal with people, living images who have words, instead of graven images, which are wordless.

Cinema is astounding, because it gives life to the lifeless – a brief, phantom life. Those who are now dead are still allowed to speak and move. Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, whoever: none of them have ever stopped moving, really, as long as we keep playing their films. But all we’ll ever see of them are their beautiful faces. All we’ll ever hear are the crisp deliveries of words written by faceless figures in smoky Hollywood offices in buildings that no longer stand. It is only with words (practically speaking, written words) that we get to hear the silent inner voice of a soul. A book is a door into an invisible home into which we are invited, with great hospitality, through words.

But writing is also very much concerned with the dead, whether the words are inscribed on an ancient stele or your grandfather’s tombstone. Words may be printed in a book to tell us of faded histories or of people who never lived at all. Words are simply signs, and books bear within themselves great chains of significance made briefly visible through letters. It is not enough that we preserve the books themselves from decay, but that we continue to read, ponder, and write new books that continue reproducing the chains of significance (not unlike genetic information) within the hearts and minds of currently living readers. Contemplating words must help us contemplate death and all our mortal limitations, but also the radiant traditions passed down to us from the dead, traditions of wisdom we wish to pass on to those not yet alive. Those who are not yet alive are, in a way, also dead.

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