“Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
I struggle often with the obscurity of great contemporary art. From the novels of Faulkner, to the poems of Eliot, to the films of Tarkovsky, I try my best to absorb the elevated style and lofty ambitions of the artists. I allow myself to be swept along by the prose, the stream of metaphorical imagery, and the anti-chronological editing. It’s impossible to consciously understand what the artist is doing, at least on the first reading. Postmodernism has perfected this obscurity, but it had its start in the modernist movements.
But while a deep and repeated reading of this kind of work is sometimes fruitful, very often it is the opposite. Scratch the surface of a stream-of-consciousness Joyce novel, and the reader will find narcissism, degradation, and a hatred of God. The messages of these obscure works are so occulted by red-herring metaphors, that the reader might not even know what he has gotten himself into until he has already invested an enormous amount of time and thought.
I entertain myself sometimes by watching YouTube video essays about subliminal encoding in films. There is a deep fascination that comes with rooting out such occult (hidden) imagery, and some of the better directors are able to layer many strata of symbolism without popular audiences even noticing. Even crown-pleasing directors like Steven Spielberg are capable of such subliminal hide-and-seek. Others are in love with hidden symbolism, but clumsy with its inclusion, like J.J. “Mystery Box” Abrams.
While I can appreciate the level of effort required to layer in meaning in ways that appeal to the subconscious as much as to the conscious mind, there is something about the hiding of an art work’s “true meaning” below a shallow surface of pop entertainment that rubs me the wrong way. I think the best art has a surface meaning and a deeper meaning that complements—not contradicts or ignores—the surface. Much like the way pre-modern theologians interpreted Scripture as having multiple spiritual levels that complement the literal level, the best Catholic artists have striven to layer harmonious meanings in the surface and sub-surface.
It is only the quasi-Gnostic, I think, who buries a contradictory sub-surface message. The ancient Gnostic error has always acted as a parasite on the orthodoxy of any particular culture. Predating Christianity by many centuries, versions of Gnosticism were present in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The pagan Greek version of orthodoxy was found in Homer and Hesiod, and in the accepted cults of the Olympians. The Orphic cult latched onto this orthodoxy and kept the surface similarities, but thoroughly rewrote the meaning of the orthodox beliefs. This cult showed nothing but contempt for orthodoxy, undermining it from within and cowardly hiding its own beliefs.
Christianity found a balance between the outer and inner, between obvious and obscure. The orthodoxy of the Church was always made plain in the creeds, but the deeper meanings of the articles of the creed could be studied for a lifetime without reaching exhaustion. In the early days of persecution, Catholics hid their ceremonies from the public eye, not wanting to cast their pearls before trampling swine. When they were accused of all manner of violence and perversion, however, they openly declared the content and meaning of their rites. A medieval church was full of symbolic iconography, but the meaning behind the symbols was always comprehensible and comforting.
“Let your word be Yes for Yes, and No for No; whatever goes beyond this, comes of evil.”
Dante’s magisterial poem was self-consciously composed with multiple levels of meaning, but no one has ever been able to demonstrate any intentional heterodoxy in his sub-levels. The scarlet letter in Mr. Hawthorne’s famous novel is also clear in its meaning, and the metaphor does not clash with the literal narrative. The raven of Poe’s elegy is quite clearly a symbol of despair, an emotion the bird intentionally awakens in the narrator. Orwell’s farm animals are clear figures of Communist oppression. Medieval allegories were rarely too obscure to understand the main point.
On the other hand, Lewis Carroll encoded bizarre meanings in his otherwise simple tale of a young girl lost in a mad world. Lyman Baum’s Oz books have likewise been long-accused of hiding obscure messages in their fantasy stories. Paradise Lost includes sexual philosophy that underscores Milton’s expressed belief in the reasonableness of divorce. The Alien film franchise has hidden anti-birth and pro-abortion symbolism beneath a monster-movie exterior (in the first film), and anti-war symbolism beneath an action movie (the second). And so on.
For all her faults, Ayn Rand at least openly explained her terrifying symbolism to anyone who asked.
The love of hidden meaning has had a deleterious effect on literary criticism, with entire careers being devoted to reading meanings into texts. Academia has been “queering the texts” for many years, for instance. Feminist theorists have often read anti-female sentiment into entirely benign texts. Leo Strauss encouraged a generation of students to make noble liars out of proponents of the perennial philosophy. Actual occult practitioners will read their own doctrines into any text they can find. The love of the esoteric at the expense of the exoteric becomes the love of novelty at the expense of reality.
Christian art, as epitomized in iconographic and poetic symbolism, always found a better balance than pure esotericism. The mind desires some symbolism and allegory to surround a great truth, because it instinctively understands that such truth is ultimately incomprehensible by the finite. Yet, great truth also must be presented comprehensibly, so that is not too easily undermined. The mystical “cloud of unknowing” does not make us doubt the historical facts of the Annunciation or the Resurrection: it makes us realize that these events possess indefinite depths.
I harbor a great love for simple stories, well told. I appreciate stories layered with symbolism and metaphor, which can harmonize like a great work of music. I worry greatly when the melody has vanished and harmony is all that’s left. Harmony without melody is mere discord.
[Pictured above: “The Passion of Creation,” by Leonid Pasternak]