Dante e Beatrice, Divina Commedia, c. 1380–1400 (Dipper Historic/Alamy Stock Photo)

Truth did not come into the world naked but in symbols and images. There is rebirth, and there is an image of rebirth, and it is by means of this image that one must be reborn.

—Gospel of Philip

In the old books, the just man is often given the heavenly name “mediator.” Mediator between man and God, between man and other men, between man and the secret laws of nature. The role of mediator was given to the just man—and the just man alone—because no imaginary or passionate tie could constrain or deform his ability to read. “Et chaque être humain (one might add et chaque chose) crie en silence pour être lu autrement.”

This is the reason so much importance has been placed on the freedom of the heart. Every church recommends it as a kind of spiritual hygiene: vigilance against turmoil, readiness for divine revelation. However, no church has ever explicitly said: keep yourselves pure in your works and thoughts in order to reconcile men and things in an unshadowed gaze. Here poetry, justice, and criticism converge: they are three forms of mediation.

For what is mediation if not an utterly free capacity for attention? Set against it is what we, quite improperly, call passion—that is, feverish imagination and fantastic illusions.

We might say, then, that justice and imagination are antithetical terms. Passionate imagination, which is one of the most uncontrollable forms of opinion (that dream in which we all move), can in reality only serve an imaginary justice. This is, for example, the essential difference between Electra’s passionate justice and Antigone’s spiritual justice. Electra imagines she can proceed from blame to blame, shifting the weight from one link to the next in an unbreakable chain. Antigone moves in a realm where the law of necessity no longer holds.

Indeed, contrary to what is typically asked of him, the just man does not need imagination but attention. We are asking a judge for justice by the wrong name if we ask him to “use his imagination.” What, in that case, could the judge’s imagination be except an inevitable abuse, an act of violence against the reality of things? Justice is a fervent form of attention, and completely nonviolent. It is as remote from appearances as it is from myth.

“Justice, a golden eye, looks.” An image of perfect immobility, perfectly attentive.

Poetry, too, is attention. In other words, it involves reading, on multiple levels, the reality around us, which is truth in images. And the poet, who takes these images apart and recomposes them, is also a mediator: between man and God, between man and other men, between man and the secret laws of nature.

The Greeks were disdainful of imagination: fantasy had no place in their minds. Their heroic, unswerving attention (of which Sophocles provides perhaps the most extreme example) continually established relationships between things, separated and united them, in an unceasing effort to decipher reality and mystery alike. The Chinese meditated for millennia, in the same manner, on the marvelous Book of Changes. And Dante is not, however scandalous it may sound, a poet of imagination but a poet of attention: to see souls writhing in the fire and the olive tree, to recognize pride in a cloak of lead, is a supreme form of attention, which leaves the elements of the idea pure and uncontaminated.

Art today is largely imagination. In other words, it is a chaotic contamination of elements and levels. All of this, naturally, is opposed to justice (which is, in any case, of no interest to artists today).

If attention is a patient, fervent, fearless acceptance of reality, imagination is impatience—a flight into the arbitrary: an endless labyrinth navigated without Ariadne’s red thread. This is why ancient art is synthetic, whereas modern art is analytic and, for the most part, concentrates on breaking things down, as is appropriate to an era brought up on fear. For true attention does not lead, as it may seem it would, to analysis but to a resolving synthesis, to symbols and images—in a word, to destiny.

Analysis can become destiny when attention, successfully performing a perfect superposition of times and spaces, is able to recompose them, one after the other, in the pure beauty of the image. Such is the attention of Marcel Proust.

Attention is the only path to the unsayable, the only path to mystery. In fact, it is firmly anchored in the real, and only through allusions hidden in reality is that mystery manifested. The symbols of the Holy Scriptures, myths, and fairytales, which have nourished and consecrated life for millennia, are clothed in the most concrete earthly forms: from the burning bush to the talking cricket, from the apple of knowledge to Cinderella’s pumpkins.

Attention frees the idea from the image, like the genie from the bottle, then gathers the idea back inside the image.

When it is confronted with reality, imagination recoils. Attention, on the other hand, grasps it, directly, as a symbol (think of Dante’s heavens, the divine and detailed translation of a liturgy). It is thus, finally, the most legitimate, absolute form of imagination. The one to which the old alchemical text no doubt alludes when it recommends dedicating “the true imagination and not the fantastic imagination” to the work. By this, clearly meaning attention, in which imagination is present but sublimated, like the poison in medicine. Due to one of the many ambiguities of language, it is commonly called “creative imagination.”

It hardly matters if long and painful pilgrimages lead to such a creative instant, or if it comes in a flash. Such bolts from the blue are only the spark (whose origin and nature become increasingly mysterious as little by little it gives us the key to everything) that attention solicits and prepares: like the lightning rod the lightning, like the prayer the miracle, like the search for a rhyme the inspiration that may flow from that rhyme.

Sometimes it is the attention of an entire lineage, a whole genealogy, which suddenly flares up in a godlike spark: “I had set foot in that part of life beyond which one cannot go with any hope of returning.”

Such an individual, whose attention is ravishing and definitive, the world defines, with a very beautiful abbreviation, as a genius, meaning a person inhabited by a demon, a person who incarnates the manifestation of a spirit unknown.

Attention frees the idea from the image, like the genie from the bottle, then gathers the idea back inside the image: once again in imitation of the alchemists, who first dissolved salt in a liquid, then studied how it reformed and solidified into figures. It is a matter of decomposing and recomposing the world in two distinct but equally real moments. And so justice is served, destiny is fulfilled, through the dramatic decomposition and recomposition of a form.

The expression, the poetry that is born from it, can only, of course, be hieroglyphic: something like a new nature. That is why only a new attention, a new destiny, will be able to decipher it. But the language instantly reveals the degree of attention that produced it, through its earthly and spiritual weight: the more consummate it is, the more space and silence that surround it, the more intense the poet’s attention must have been.

Every word is offered in its multiple meanings, like the strata of a geologic column: each one differently colored and differently inhabited, each one reserved for the reader whose intensity of attention will allow him to discern and decipher it. But for everyone, when a poem is pure, it comes as an abundant gift that is simultaneously partial and total: beauty and meaning independent yet inseparable, as in a communion. As in that first Communion, which was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Everyone who heard the master speak, says a Hebrew tale, felt they were hearing a secret destined for his ears alone, and so everyone felt the marvelous story the master told in the squares belonged to him and was complete, although every newcomer heard only a fragment.

Souffrir pour quelque chose, c’est lui avoir accordé une attention extrême.” (So Homer suffers for the Trojans and contemplates the death of Hector; so the Japanese sword master does not distinguish between his own death and that of his adversary.) And to have given something extreme attention is to have accepted suffering it to the end, and not only suffering it but suffering for it, placing ourselves like a shield between it and everything that can threaten it, both inside ourselves and outside ourselves. It is to have taken upon ourselves the weight of those dark, incessant threats, which are the very condition of joy.

Here attention attains perhaps its purest form, its most precise name: responsibility, the capacity to respond on behalf of something or someone, which is equally vital to poetry, understanding between beings, opposition to evil.

Because truly every human, poetic, or spiritual error is nothing, in essence, if not inattention.

To ask a man to never be distracted, to be continually turning his faculty of attention away from the errors of imagination, the laziness of habit, the hypnosis of custom, is to ask him to realize his highest form.

It is to ask him for something very close to holiness in a time that seems to be pursuing, with blind fury and bone-chilling success, nothing so much as a total divorce of the human mind from its capacity for attention.

Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents

Cristina Campo was the pen name of Vittoria Guerrini (1923–1977), an Italian writer, intellectual, and translator. Besides poems and criticism, Campo also published translations of works by Katherine Mansfield, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Simone Weil. This essay, translated from Italian by Alex Andriesse and used with permission from New York Review Books, originally appeared in 1953.

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