The Mindful Mona Lisa: Sustainable Communication | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Mindful Mona Lisa: Sustainable Communication

By Max Herman



Italo Calvino, an author always fascinated by science’s impact on literature and the relationship between visual and verbal imagination, writes in his “Quickness” essay from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.”

One of his symbols of quickness in literature is the Olympian deity Hermes-Mercury:

“[The] god of communication and mediation, who under the name of Thoth was the inventor of writing…. Mercury with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between gods and humans, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects.”

He adds that “For the ancients, who saw microcosm and macrocosm mirrored in the correspondences between psychology and astrology, between humours, temperaments, planets, and constellations, Mercury’s nature was the most indefinite and variable.”  As the deliverer of dreams to sleep, and guide of spirits to the underworld, Mercury is sometimes understood as a bridge between realms.

Into his short essay on quickness as a literary value Calvino weaves diverse and curious threads: Galileo’s dialogue between Simplicio and Salviati regarding the Copernican model; the role of magic objects in folklore as “knots” in the network of narrative relationships; the relativity of time for Scheherazade and Rip Van Winkle. 

Leonardo too valued the speed and directness of communication made possible by visual imagery, as well as its power to establish pattern across diverse phenomena, writing that “The mind passes in an instant from east to west; and all the great incorporeal things resemble these very closely in speed.”  Yet he also realized that contemplative observation and patient science of both the anatomy of sense perception and natural phenomena were crucial to the information-flows comprising perception, imagination, and expression.  Festina lente, continuing the slow yet urgent work of the arts and sciences over centuries.  “Shun those studies in which the work that results dies with the worker.”

Sustainable communication must be not only rapid and agile enough to keep pace with human experience but nuanced and rich enough not to diminish awareness to a state of blindness or elision.  Fidelity to the interdependent realities of nature, technology, and humanity is one definition of truth, or as Leonardo wrote: “Falsehood puts on a mask. Nothing is hidden under the sun.”  Nature should be the maestra of art.

Since communication – including freedom of speech and assembly, representative democracy, and the rule of law – is so fundamental to political life any culture of sustainability must foster and defend sustainable communication in all spheres.  In turn, cultural dialogue and awareness provide an indispensable fabric of knowledge and information within which a sustainable politics can take shape and achieve resilience. 

Machiavellian communication as depicted in The Prince – subordinated to the acquisition of power by force, adversarial in logic, and reliant on deception and manipulation – when unconstrained by a system of higher values leads only to the kind of tragic destruction still all too clearly on display even among very modern societies, even with all our marvels of AI, social media, and instant massive data transfer. 



Next blog: compassion and affinity