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Visualizing Impossibility

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Charles A. Gillespie

How does impossibility look to the eye? We call events or ideas ‘impossible’ when they show us something unexpected, inexplicable, or suddenly new. The sort of impossibility perhaps imagined by George Frederic Watts’s portrait of a rich man faced with a challenge harder than anyone would want a challenge to be. These are the possible ‘impossibilities’: undoable only because they have yet to be done. Improbable and potentially inadvisable; but technically ‘possible’ according to the rules of the everyday, waking world. Even though the task is ‘impossibly difficult’, anyone could sell everything and follow Jesus. Peter reminds his master how some already have!

Those disciples must then react to another impossible image. Jesus’s micro-parable says big camels go through tiny needles more easily than rich people enter the kingdom of heaven. Impossibility can also be seen through the surreal. This is the impossibility at work in the Composite Camel with Attendant: a beast unable to be found in the wild world as we know it. Imagined impossibilities can even be frightening. Beautiful and strange, this camel may shock, amaze, or captivate—like Jesus’s challenge to the rich young man. If it only shocks it leaves us like Watts’s rich aristocrat. If it also captivates it encourages us to journey. Sometimes, artists visualize impossibility by reassembling pieces of the world as we know them. Monsters and fantasy vistas expand the limits of the imagination, pointing to the world’s promise beyond ordinary sightlines.

Some impossibilities will never literally be ‘seen’ in a picture. Words of poetry can sing logical contradictions (like a square circle) in ways that elude figurative art’s representational forms. Yet the abstract colours and shapes in Paul Klee’s palette could perhaps be said to rhyme with this third sort of impossibility. Does New Harmony elicit the same calm feeling of balance as a well-struck chord, connecting us with something more than what we see?

Themes of recombination and renunciation occupy chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel as reminders of how accepted standards of possibility become transfigured in God. Christ’s teaching about inheritance, goodness, and salvation all underscore God’s complete unexpectedness. Only God counts as good (v.18); only ephemeral treasures in heaven have lasting value (v.21); all things are possible only for God (v.27). These three images invite us to consider impossibility: the non-possibility for mortals of achieving eternal life through some action of their own. The impossible coherence of all the world’s history living eternally in the kingdom of heaven: a complex-unity beyond the confines of the world’s old and broken harmonies of time and space. New Harmony could, perhaps, work alongside the Composite Camel to awaken in us a new sensibility about the heavenly kingdom.

The viewer of a work of art assembles differences into unity by operating from outside an image’s ‘frame’. The rich young man in Mark 10 is asked to adopt a viewpoint that permits a new assemblage of what he sees—perhaps to look on the poor with the same gaze of love he receives from Christ.

We might view in the camel’s single attendant a reminder of this Christ: the One who invites the rich man to ‘come, follow me’ (v.21) just as the other disciples have already done. The caravan leads to eternal life by following behind the teacher, turning away from self-obsessed histories toward shared futures.

Reading in the company of these works of art may help us to visualize the astounding wonders of God. The impossibilities suggested by them remind us of the vast treasures the follower of Christ has already inherited, precisely while being asked to give them away. Beauty arises when goods are shared.

These works critique cultures of opulence even as they participate within them. Hoarded wealth, like any self-obsession, curves our attention inwards and causes us to look away from the amazements that arise from sharing in unexpected relationships. Like these images, Christ directs our attention outside comfortable frames of reference. Perhaps Watts’s sense of avarice’s lament honours the grace required to do an impossible act of love for others. The Composite Camel may help us glimpse the impossible harmonization of histories in the eternal life promised by Jesus. Klee’s abstractions can invite new openness to wonder through artistic experiments that push the limits of what was previously thought possible.

These works remind us that God’s all-possibility always confounds and reshapes the merely mortal imagination.