Leonardo and the ‘fleeting quality of imagination’

March 28, 2009 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Procrastination is a sin.

That’s what we’re taught anyway. Putting things off, not getting things done — those things mark you as a slacker, a nere-do-well, a skylarker (military), a goldbrick (also military), a bum. And around the part of the country where I live, you’re just plain “sorry.”

W. L. Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, has a different take on the whole procrastination thing and lays it out in a perceptive essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required).

According to the E-prof, the patron saint of us academic procrastinators is none other than Leonard da Vinci:

If Leonardo seemed endlessly distracted by his notebooks and experiments — instead of finishing the details of a painting he had already conceptualized — it was because he understood the fleeting quality of imagination: If you do not get an insight down on paper, and possibly develop it while your excitement lasts, then you are squandering the rarest and most unpredictable of your human capabilities, the very moments when one seems touched by the hand of God.

A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s journalis

The fire of imagination and creativity doesn’t respond to the tick of the time clock. It comes when it comes — and sometimes leaves without a finished product.

Leonardo ended his life with about 20 finished paintings and lots of jobs un-done. Yet he left more than 500 pages of notes and drawings (that we know of), and they show us the essence of his genius and how his mind flitted to a subject, bore into it for as long as it interested him, and then flitted to another one.

Those are not the habits, as Pannapacker points out, that would get him tenure or promotion in a modern university. What we reward instead, he says, is completed mediocrity.

One could construct a strong argument against Pannapacker’s thesis, but the idea is intriguing and attention should be paid.

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