Author and illustrator Leo Lionni is best known for fitting together translucent, tissue shapes into children’s narratives—the first to do so, although his mouse Frederick (1967) was soon joined by Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). Like fellow collagist Carle, Lionni had a day job in the world of art direction and advertising, working for Fortune for over a decade as well as Olivetti.
Lesser known is Lionni’s book for adults: Parallel Botany (1976). Far from his parable of Little Blue and Little Yellow, Parallel Botany has been compared to such esoteric texts as Luigi Serafini’s asemic encyclopedia The Codex Seraphinianus (1981) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), a fabricated explorer’s narrative. Parallel Botany is a field guide to imaginary plants, which Lionni presents with the authority of an academic writer—peppering his writing with references to real places and people, just to complicate things. It’s uniquely suited for rereading in the age of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts,” as it spans the gap between art and science, showing how disregard for the truth equally imperils both the studio and the laboratory.
The epigraph to Parallel Botany is a quote by Marianne Moore: “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino demonstrate in their own ways that art (the garden) and science (the toad) are not opposites—rather, they are the first casualties of a fascist regime. (Calvino actually wrote an introduction for Serafini’s Codex.) Why? Because their parallel thought processes reveal truth rather than replace it.
For Lionni, artifice—specifically, artificial science—is an art. “The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants. Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany,” he narrates. “For parallel plants, which often possess no other reality than mere appearance, plantness is one thing that enables us to recognize and describe them, and, to some extent to study their behavior.”
Although Lionni deals in immaterialism, he still relies on the structure of a field guide—just as other fabulist authors borrow from the encyclopedia and the atlas. In Invisible Cities, Calvino portrays a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Polo describes 55 cities, each of which is only as real as Polo’s ability to conceptualize it. Or, as Khan puts it, these cities constitute “a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.” (For the mathematically minded, the descriptions of the cities form a matrix of themes—to most, they are just poetry.) “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” Calvino writes.
Reading Lionni, one willingly suspends the question of realness in order to absorb the artful presentation of scientific fact. It is the right, and enjoyment, of this willing suspension that we must now fight for. “Like the subjects of old portraits they are reborn today, after long repose in oblivion, with a double identity: the one which we see before us in its gilded frame, with its own reality,” Lionni writes of his parallel plants. He even makes reference to one “Harole MacLohen,” a thinly-veiled Marshall McLuhan. MacLohen’s analysis of modern media includes the caution, “The leading personalities of our time–athletes, statesmen, pop singers, and scientists–are at most ten inches tall. We accept their rather dubious dimensions without ever being able to verify them in person.” A thing is made real by what it represents. Consider Harvard’s collection of “Glass Flowers”—delicate, organic forms which once took my breath away on a class field trip. To “read” the glass flowers requires the same critical literacy as Parallel Botany.
Truly healthy societies seek to cultivate rational imagination. In The Believer, Justin Taylor describes his first encounter with The Codex Seraphinianus and its internal logic, however inscrutable. “Text accompanied these images—or what looked like text. But the text wasn’t in English, and it wasn’t anything recognizably foreign like, say, Arabic or Sanskrit, though those analogs immediately came to mind. Though impenetrable, a kind of meaning was suggested by the layout of the script on the page.” Just as Lionni describes plantness, Serafini’s asemic writing is evidence of languageness. Taylor takes the book to writer Shelley Jackson, who remarks, “It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge.”
The philosophical framework for all three of the works mentioned resembles a predecessor–”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by Jorge Luis Borges. In this short story, the narrator finds an entry within an ordinary encyclopedia that hints at the existence of another world. Later, he finds an encyclopedia entirely dedicated to it: “Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history…And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.” In fact, Borges’s story is a bit of a parody itself. In a 1977 interview, the author explained that the story was based on George Berkeley’s theory of subjective idealism, “the idea of there being no things but only happenings, of there being no nouns but only verbs, of there being no things but only perceptions,” Borges said.
The narrator calls the existence of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius a “complete idealism [that] invalidates all science,” however, it is clear from the existence of Parallel Botany that subjective idealism can have a political function in a society sliding towards fascism. This function is to dematerialize art and science, so that truth is the process of discernment—not a set of pliable facts. Hannah Arendt put it best when she said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
When our critical literacy suffers our imagination suffers as well, limiting the genres of possibility. Truth makes the art of Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino possible. It is the difference between science fiction and science and fiction. Serafini’s asemic writing is an argument for reading. Calvino’s invented locales represent past and future travels. Lionni’s fake field guide falls flat without true scientific sight. For every author like Lionni there is a corresponding model of oppression in which we don’t just give up the facts—we give up the ability to parallelize them.