On Subtlety

Meghan O’Gieblyn


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.”



We say that things are subtle when they are understated—such as makeup, or lighting—or when they are capable of making fine distinctions, as in a subtle mind. But the connotation of subtlety that has long preoccupied me is that which means “indirect” or “concealed,” and also its archaic definition (“cunning, crafty”), which still haunts the contemporary meaning. “All literature is made of tricks,” Jorge Luis Borges once said. Some tricks, he noted, are easy enough to decipher, but the best ones are so sly they hardly feel like tricks at all. As a child homeschooled in an evangelical family, left to my own devices for great swaths of time, I became particularly good at uncovering the most obvious cues in a text. I knew that the poet meant for snow to symbolize death, or that a conversation between two people concerned abortion, even though the story never used the word. Literary interpretation is, essentially, a form of hermeneutics—a skill one learns osmotically from listening to sermons, a genre in which I was immersed. But the stories that captivated and unsettled me were those that remained irreducible. In these, there were no codes to be cracked, no definitive meaning to be exposed—just the faintest sense that the surface of the text was undergirded by a vast system of roots that must remain forever invisible.

Today, many of the smartest people I know have become infatuated with melodrama, genre fiction, and TV dramas: narratives that wear their ideas easily on their sleeve. “It is heavy-handed in the best way,” writes a prominent magazine critic about a novel that has recently been serialized for television. “It makes everything blunter and more explicit, almost pulpy at times.” It seems that all of us, exhausted by New Criticism, caught up in the throes of peak TV, have finally outgrown whatever charms the elusive once held. There exists among people my age a tendency to dismiss subtlety as “evasive” or “coy,” as though whatever someone has taken pains to conceal must be somehow ill intentioned, cut from the same unwholesome cloth as dog-whistle politics and the silky doublespeak of reptiles like Richard Spencer. Perhaps the slogans of the Trump era have now extended themselves to the arts: we must speak in one voice, in no uncertain terms. Each week, I receive emails from any number of activist organizations that begin in more or less the same way: “Let me be clear . . .”



For me, growing up in a Christian family required an interpretive vigilance, a willingness to harken to whispers. As children, we were taught to remain alert at all times. God could speak to you through a fortune cookie, a highway billboard, the lyrics of pop songs. Fools could proclaim his wisdom and radio DJs could be his angels in disguise. Once, during a long drive to a church retreat, our youth pastor pointed to the license plate of the car ahead of us and explained that each of its letters corresponded to a problem he’d been praying over for months. Interpretation slid easily into paranoia and faith into superstition, but the point was you had to pay attention. If you let your guard down you might miss the miracle, like the disciples at Gethsemane who fell asleep on their watch.

The problem was you could never be certain the signs were not from the darker forces. The devil too was subtle, according to the book of Genesis: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” (My mother, who dictated the passages my siblings and I committed to memory, preferred the King James Version, which renders it subtil.) As a child, I often wondered what it meant that the devil was subtle. It was clear that he was mutable, appearing and disappearing throughout scripture in various disguises: as a snake, a lion, or an angel of light. More likely, though, it referred to his rhetoric, which was coy and Socratic: “Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” A cruder entity would have made demands or arguments, but Lucifer wove elaborate traps of questions, prodding his victim to reach the relevant conclusion herself.

When I began writing, I believed that fiction should be a form of seduction. I wanted to write stories that were like the stories I loved: oblique in their approach, buttressed by themes that revealed themselves upon multiple readings. But in workshops, my classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. For a while, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But there comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it become impossible to dismiss. At times, it seemed less a critique of my craft than an indictment of my character. People regarded my tactics as cagey, as though I were ashamed of my ideas and trying to hide them behind a veil. More than once, readers discovered a meaning I hadn’t intended. For a while, everything I wrote seemed to hazard misinterpretation, inviting accusations of chicanery, purposelessness, or bad faith.



Christ himself was a master of the indirect, speaking in parables more often than sermons. In their original form, as they appear in the logia—the collection of his sayings that circulated before the writing of the gospels—the parables have the tenor of a riddle: A sower went out with a handful of seeds, scattering them across the earth. Some seeds fell on rocky soil, others fell on thorns, some were eaten up by birds before they could take root, but some found good soil and produced fruit. What does it mean? In the logia, Christ provides no guidance. Many of the stories end with the phrase “He who has ears, let him hear.” Another riddle, though most scholars believe it to mean: Let he who is capable of understanding these mysteries receive them.

When I was at Bible school, struggling with the first shadows of doubt, the subtlety of the gospel troubled me. The message of salvation should have been democratic, available to all. But it was not clear. Time and again, the disciples asked Jesus if he was the son of God, and he refused to answer—or else gave some impossible reply: “Who do you say I am?” Was it not irresponsible that Christ had come to earth with a handful of koans and esoteric stories and expected his message to be understood by the entire world? I once raised this question in a theology course. The professor opened the question to the class. When it became clear that nobody was going to answer, he took off his glasses and spoke with a quiet gravity. “One paradox has remained true throughout history,” he said. “The more explicitly God reveals himself to mankind, the more likely we are to reject him. Christ did finally declare himself the son of God, and we crucified him.”



For as long as I can remember, I’ve had vivid and memorable dreams. They are often very beautiful, rendered in lush floral colors and almost cinematic in their level of detail. The only problem is that they are so relentlessly on the nose. When I turned thirty and my inbox was suddenly flooded with birth announcements, I had a recurring dream in which a tiny deformed man followed me around as I performed my daily rituals. I would be trying to brush my teeth, or walking to the store, and there was the little man waddling after me, waving amiably like a salesman trying to get my attention, so that I was forced to admonish him, beneath my breath, to go away. Another time, after I’d written something of which I was ashamed, I dreamt that I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen being made to drink a vial of ink just as I’d been made to take cold medicine as a child. “Your dreams,” my sister remarked once, “are like Freud for idiots.”

If the purpose of dreams is to alert the conscious mind to what it has ignored or forgotten, then mine are very efficient—a fact for which I suppose I should be grateful. But I often wonder whether my subconscious isn’t giving me too little credit. It is a strange thing to have your sensibilities so offended by your own dormant imagination. In the end, the obviousness of these messages makes me reluctant to heed them, as though doing so would only increase the grimy indignity of being pandered to.



During those years of doubt, when God seemed distant or completely silent, I tried to remind myself that this was what it meant to be the bride of Christ. Earthly life was imbued with a kind of romantic tension; it was a cosmic game of seduction wherein our creator played hard to get. If life seemed unjust, if God himself felt absent, it was because we were blinded, as humans, from seeing the unifying story that would emerge only at the end of time. Until that glorious wedding day, when the veil would be lifted and the truth would be revealed, the nature of reality must appear to us as shadows, like figures passing darkly across a clouded mirror.

When I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind. I imagined myself exiting a primitive cave and striding onto terra firma, embracing a world where there would be no more shadows, no more distant echoes, only the blinding and unambiguous light of science and reason. But as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I left behind. The laws of physics are slippery, and resistant to grand unifying theories. The outcomes of quantum experiments change depending on our observation of them. Particles solidify when we probe them, but become waves when we turn our backs. As the physicist Paul Davies once put it, “Nature seems to play tricks on us.” Some scientists have now begun to take seriously the proposition that we exist within a multiverse, that we are forever separated from the truth of our existence by an impenetrable quantum veil.

What to make of this sly and nonsensical world that is indifferent to our curiosity? If the universe were a novel, we might say that it is “elusive,” or perhaps even “opaque.” If it were a god, we could only conclude that he had hidden his face. But perhaps it is a mistake—one common in our age of transparency—to perceive that which escapes our understanding as necessarily malicious. Others have found in these cosmic mysteries not tricks but signs of the ineffable. “The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not,” said Albert Einstein. “Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse.”



I worry, once again, that my oblique approach has managed only to muddle things. I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate to our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown. You are always teetering on the brink of insanity. You are always walking on a wire strung across an abyss, hoping to make it from one end to the other without losing your balance, or your mind.

Perhaps this is another way of saying that subtlety is a transaction of faith. The artist must have faith that the effects will be perceived in the way she intends; the reader must trust that what he detects beneath the surface of the text is not merely a figment of his imagination. The disciple must come to believe that the whispers he hears in the wilderness are not the wind, or the devil, but the voice of his creator—just as the physicist must accept that there is order to the universe, even when its rules elude us. Such leaps of faith can be motivated only by love—a love so fierce it is willing to subsist on morsels, taking bread crumbs for a path in the dark. And perhaps, in the end, it is love that allows us to endure these mysteries, to subsist on so little, believing that somewhere, beyond the darkness, exists another consciousness that is trying to reach us.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is a writer who lives in Wisconsin. Her essay collection, Interior States, will be published in October by Anchor Books.

Art credit: Andrea Matone / Alamy Stock Photo