Joy of Interpretation

I recently finished a book about the works of Salvador Dali, whose art fascinates me to no end. It’s also given me some good inspiration for some of my stories because the paintings can be interpreted in so many ways.

When you look at a Dali painting, especially one like The Apotheosis of Homer, you can really get lost in it. The depth of symbolism and the small details force you to look closely and think about what the artist intended for the piece and what your own interpretation might be. Paintings like Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening are filled with familiar objects put together in such a way that evokes Freudian symbolism and the end of a long dream sequence.

Classic literature is similar; often, there is so much going on in classic works like those of Faulkner, Proust, and Joyce, that you have to “listen up” and pay attention so that you can grasp the author’s intended meaning, while also forming your own meaning from it.

That is the reason I enjoy art and literature rather than math and science, which are so “black and white” – there’s only one right answer and a logical, concrete reason why that particular answer is the right one. When it comes to art and literature, it’s an open field. There are no wrong interpretations. Math and science are beautiful in their precise ways, but art and literature truly allow you to create your own mental imagery and exercise your creative mind. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, but like Dali, Faulkner, Proust, or Picasso, you have to know and respect the “rules” and existing trends in order to break and transform them.

15 thoughts on “Joy of Interpretation

  1. I love a good complex piece of art, or a well-structured and complicated novel, but I feel I should comment on your notion that science (if not math) is “black and white”. It’s been my experience that even the best scientists bring certain pre-conceived notions to their laboratory or work bench. They bring their attitudes, their prejudices and their beliefs to bear on their work. It is only human to do so, I think.

    When Newton said we “stand on the shoulders of giants” he meant we take their experiments and learning as a stepping-off point. It didn’t mean that we recreated each of those experimenst ourselves. We assumed they were correct, because everybody else does. )

    This is no criticism of your post, please. Only a note that I think is important.


    • Good point. Artists, authors, musicians, etc. also “stand on the shoulders of giants.” It’s just that I’ve never really seen science and math to be as “free-form” as the arts. For me, science and math allow less room for creativity. Thanks, Rik!


      • I think that’s at least somewhat that we see the possibilities in what we’re doing, and what we’re not doing seems to have fewer options, because we’re looking at it from the outside. It’s like the point about genre (we always see the possibilities in our own genre, but we can see other people’s genres as limiting —

        But my training in science was pretty basic, so I could be wrong. Certainly computer programming, which I have a little exprience with, has many of the same challenges and rewards as writing fiction.


        • Based on what little I know about computer programming, I can see how it would be a more “creative” endeavor than science or math.


  2. Wonderful post, Maggie.

    I love words AND numbers and enjoy playing around with both. I love symbolism in literature and art and poetry and enjoy WATCHING the notes unfold in a great piece of music.

    You might enjoy these . . .

    For a little Fun with Numbers:

    Attitude is Everything:

    Embrace Certainty and Symmetry:


  3. I really like how you cover both the author’s meaning, and the reader’s interpretation. I think too many readers/viewers/listeners focus too much on one or the other. Oftentimes an artist puts something in a story, and a critic will focus on it and comment how wonderful it is the artist included the bit with the giant red leaf, which symbolizes such and such. And the artist is nodding and smiling but thinking, “I just liked the big red leaf, is all.” I like how art goes both ways.


    • That’s true. Different critics will focus on different things – and sometimes, they’ll be the things the author/artist never intended to be important.


      • Oh, definitely. I’ll give you an example. In my first novel (A Sane Woman — and this is not a spoiler 🙂 ) there are three siblings. I know their parents were very religious, so I gave them biblical names (Samuel, Sarah, David). Now, I’m not religious, so I have no idea of the specifics of Samuel, Sarah, and David in the Bible, but I know some readers may try to draw parallels between my characters and their namesakes. If such parallels exist, they are pure luck.


        • I think it’s fun to put symbolism in the book and then see how many readers pick up on it – or what alternative interpretations might be. It’s like a puzzle sometimes. 🙂


    • Dali – Gilles Neret – It’s not really a comprehensive biography, but it gives a pretty good overview and contains a lot of his more famous art. And it’s short, so it’s not overwhelming!


  4. Ahhh Maggie, you love Dali as well. So cool! I had the pleaure of seeing a great exhibit of his work at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta this past January. What an informative exhibit. All of his great works and period works were there. Art does transform. It is like no other process in which man can discover the nuances of his thought and build insight into who he is.


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