Multiple interpretations

A section in Semir Zeki’s Splendors and Miseries of the Brain inspires this short post.

Our brain makes meaning based on the information it receives.

But what if there are multiple possible meanings, all valid?  The brain has two strategies: Focus on one, or hold multiple interpretations together.

Some of our favourite works of art are open to multiple interpretations.  They leave plenty of things open for our minds to fill in the blanks.

It seems that the right hemisphere of the brain is open to multiple interpretations – whereas the left hemisphere prefers to focus on one thing.

We are going to look at three examples:

  • Vermeer’s painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring
  • Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
  • The motives of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello

Zeki uses the Vermeer as an example, and we will start with that.  Is the girl in painting inviting or distant?  Is she erotically charged or chaste?  Resentful or pleased?  The genius of Vermeer is that he paints her such that she is all of these things at the same time.

The Frost poem is one of his most celebrated and memorable.  On the surface it is a simple, evocative, nature poem. But then the last two repeated lines call you back and ask you go deeper.  Perhaps the poem is about death, or even suicide?  Or is actually about the art of poetry itself?  It is all of these things at once.  See this analysis for more:

Spark Notes Analysis of Robert Frost poem

Shakespeare originally used a version of Othello where Iago’s motives were clear – he was in love with Desdemona.  In the version we know and love, Iago has no obvious motive.  Stephen Greenblatt calls this ‘opacity of motive’, and suggests the less we know about someone’s motives, the greater the work of art.

Perhaps all art is – by definition – open to multiple interpretations (whereas design solves a specific problem).  That wider subject is for a later post.

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