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On Subtlety

AP Photo/LM Otero

Meghan O’Gieblyn | Interior States | Anchor | October 2018 | 13 minutes (6,551 words)



In ancient Rome, there were certain fabrics so delicate and finely stitched they were called subtilis, literally “underwoven.” The word—from which came the Old French soutil and the English subtle—often described the gossamer-like material that was used to make veils. I think of organza or the finest blends of silk chiffon, material that is opaque when gathered but sheer when stretched and translucent when held up to the light. Most wedding veils sold today use a special kind of tulle called “bridal illusion,” a term I’ve always loved, as it calls attention to the odd abracadabra of the veil, an accoutrement that is designed to simultaneously reveal and conceal.



Doris Lessing once complained that her novel The Golden Notebook was widely misinterpreted. For her, the story was about the theme of “breakdown,” and how madness was a process of healing the self’s divisions. She placed this theme in the center of the novel, in a section that shares the title of the book, which she assumed would lead readers to understand that it was the cipher. Rather than making the theme explicit, she wanted to hint at it through the form of the novel itself, “to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.” But in the end, her efforts did not translate. “Nobody so much as noticed this central theme,” she complains in the introduction to the 1973 edition. “Handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.”


There are people, of course, who will argue that divergent readings are a sign of a work’s complexity. But whenever I return to Lessing’s account of her novel’s reception, I can’t help but hear a note of loneliness, one that echoes all those artists who have been woefully misunderstood: Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a protest against abstract math. Georgia O’Keeffe insisted that her paintings of poppies and irises were not meant to evoke female genitalia (flowers, her defenders keep pointing out, fruitlessly, are androgynous). Ray Bradbury once claimed at a UCLA lecture that his novel Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship, but the dangers of television. He was shouted out of the lecture hall. Nietzsche abhorred anti-Semitism, but when Hitler came across a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he interpreted the image of the “splendid blond beast” as a symbol of the Aryan race. One wonders what might have happened had Nietzsche simply written: “lion.” Read more…