What is Truth? Although many, if not most, people lay claim to the Platonic idea that absolute truth exists in the universe, many “things” are truly subjective: we interpret them according to our personal and collective experiences. In addition, we do not see the world around us in the same manner. An old cliché says that a picture is worth a thousand words, but is it?
What is going on in this picture? What do we know about it other than it is a painting of a man and a woman kissing? It is only with the word “TABU” that we associate something forbidden with the kiss.
How does the title “Stolen Kiss” help our understanding of the action portrayed in this picture?
What do these pictures tell us?
Things might not appear as we see them. In the first picture, the man and woman might be married to each other, but since it is an ad for a perfume called “Tabu” (taboo), our perspective is directed at something forbidden. In the second kiss picture, even the word “stolen” does not clarify the whole story—is it another forbidden love, or is it merely a husband stealing a kiss when he should be working? In some cases, people deliberately—or innocently—present ruses that fool us. The giant skeletons were made for a photo contest, but some groups used them to “prove” the existence of giants in ancient times.
In the first two pictures, we assumed certain things, and most of us assumed the same thing: the pictures portrayed kisses taken on the sly. We thought this because of written information, “Tabu” and “Stolen,” and also the circumstances, body language, etc., of the characters. This is one way that the arts differ from the sciences: the former are subjective but the latter is not. In math, 2 + 2 always equals 4; scientific theories, educated guesses, can be put forth about matters, but in reality, evolution either took place or did not take place. In science, assuming a matter can be dangerous.
Assuming many matters in the arts is almost a given: how we perceive visual (iconography, movies, TV, etc.) or written (novels, short stories, poems, etc.) arts is subjective. How we process and understand the given information is based on perception. The perception of the individual is based on various criteria including cultural/societal views (including religion), upbringing, socio-economics, and more. All we have to judge art is opinion, and opinions widely vary.
What do you see?
Most of you would immediately say that you see brown and white horses against a backdrop of snow and brown rock, but at least one student to whom I showed this picture in seated classes never saw the horses! She insisted that the rest of us were “making it up” to fool her.
In the horse picture, it is easy (for most of us) to detect and decide the subjects of the picture, but what about this one? Rabbit or duck?
Man blowing a horn or the face of a lady?
Is this the picture of an old man and woman looking into each other’s eyes, or is it the picture of a Mexican street scene: men with sombreros, one with a guitar, another with a bottle, and a woman in a doorway? Is there a goblet? Or is it a picture with all of those elements? Do we have to decide one way or another?
Can you trust your eyes? Stare at the + in the picture below for a few minutes and see what happens.
One of the stationary, magenta dots turns green and begins revolving! (If this did not happen, keep staring.) Which is “real”: the first image or the resulting image? Can you trust your perception? Look at the next slides: They require even more “perception”!
Did you see the shark? (If you have not done Magic Eye pictures, look at it at a distance of about 8-10 inches, then draw back slowly when your eyes “unfocus.”) What can you see on the next slide? (I am not going to tell you what the next picture portrays.)
When these optical illusions became popular over 10 years ago, I could NOT see the hidden image and like my student, was convinced that everyone was perpetuating a huge joke on me. Talk about conspiracy theories!
Yes, there is a purpose for showing you all of these pictures: reading literature has the same “problems” in perception and pose the same questions—what is really going on? One person could read a story about Mexico and see the two old people looking in each other’s eyes; another could read it and only see the street scene. Perhaps a third person could synthesize all the elements of the picture/story and put them together.
To me, that is the beauty of art, visual and written. While 2 + 2 = 4 might be comforting in its static properties, how literature is read and perceived is based on the reader, an unlike a mathematical equation, there is no one right answer. Which does not mean that every theory about a work of art is correct! When the reader proposes a thesis, it must be backed by specifics from the story or poem. Take the poem “The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost:
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
This poem is usually interpreted as a symbol for the decisions that we must make in our lives. The roads symbolize two decisions, and the one the narrator takes forever influences his life. However, Frost writes that the poem was intended as a gentle poke at his friend who could (literally) not easily decide which path to take on walking trips. Does that mean that the first interpretation is wrong? Not at all—a fork in the road has long symbolized decisions, so there is evidence to support the theory within the body of the poem.
However, if one proposed that the poem is about a legion of angry flying monkeys who lurk in the woods, infiltrating the minds of unwary travelers, the theory could not be supported or substantiated by the imagery in the poem. When poetry is explicated (explained line by line or generally) or prose is examined, theories must be supported by the work, but many possibilities exist and can be feasible.
When you read the assignments for this class, whether they are for short stories, a play, a novel, or poetry, keep the subjectivity of the work in mind. What YOU “get “ from the work might not be what your peers or even what I perceive as the author’s meaning. Over the years, my students have been able to enrich my understanding of works because, simply, individuals read things differently. A few times, I had to seriously reconsider my approach and a couple of times, I changed my mind about what I had previously thought. As a writer, I have also had readers interpret one of my stories differently than I had intended. Usually, on consideration, I saw that their interpretations were merited, which did not detract from the writing, but added deeper, richer meanings.
Value diversity! Listen to the perspectives of others. Agree to disagree. In most cases, “truth” is subjective and spelled with a lowercase, not an uppercase “t.”