On Blue (or maybe white) Dresses, and Interpreting Deuteronomy and Hozier

Reblogged from Rodalena (Rhonda Little), a Freshly Pressed winner and a thinker.  During the recent social media to do about what color a certain dress may or may not be, Rhonda became involved in a discussion with a dear friend about perception.  What we see and how we see it.  We felt that this was an important discussion for any writer.  How do you perceive your subject?  How do you want your reader to perceive your subject? Food for thought.


Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of articles whose subject is how people interpret what they see, hear, and read. It’s interesting how our minds work, how we each are viewing the world through unique lenses. What is blue and black to me may very well be white and gold to you.


What color was the dress? Is there One Right Answer? If you think there is only One Right Answer and I think maybe it can be both, can we still communicate? If you see white and gold, are you wrong, or just seeing the garment through the lenses of your own eyes?

And what of language? What of ancient texts like the Bible? What of poetry? Laws? Music? Does God condone divorce in Deuteronomy 24? What is Billy Collins saying when he wrote in Introduction to Poetry:

“But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.”

Does the Second Amendment mean I should be able to park a tank in my garage if I so choose? Is Hozier’s Take Me to Church an anthem for the gay and lesbian community, a rant against institutionalized religion, or is it a love song? Or is it all of those things, none of those things, or something else entirely?

Is there always One Correct Interpretation, or can language convey more than one true meaning? Are there times when we should we not even be trying to interpret this stuff at all?

Language, especially poetic language, is a complicated thing.

The parts are simple enough to define: there’s a speaker, an audience, and the language.  The simple act of speaking presupposes some common elements. The speaker and the audience have to have the same language, most basically (because every language has thousands of peculiarities, or idioms, that a non-native speaker will miss). It’s no good trying to have a meaningful conversation with a Basque-speaker, using a phrase-book. They must also share a basic view of the world: it’s no good asking a scientist to speak to a 3rd century mystic unless each is prepared to do an enormous amount of explanation.

Interpreting language is not simple at all. If a journalist says, “The sun rose today,” he can use the precise words that the mystical poet uses but mean something utterly different. The journalist means that the upper tangent of the sun cleared the horizon at his latitude at precisely 6:52 A.M. The poet might use the exact same words but mean rather, “The world is filled with startling regularity.”

It should be obvious then that the best communication depends on the speaker and the audience (or, better, the interlocutor) sharing some assumptions about what makes good communication.

“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn't your pet -- it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” -Joss Whedon

There are two parties in a conversation: the speaker and the audience. If one is neither the speaker nor the intended audience, they are eavesdropping, and though the conversation may be of great importance and interest to them, they may not understand everything being communicated because they are the third.

When a Third is added, the dialogue has become a trialogue: a speaker, an intended audience, and the eavesdropper.

When interpreting works like the Bible, ancient texts, poetry, and many other forms of human communication, the modern English-speaker is like a man who listens from the shadows while two lovers exchange intimate words. He may snicker. He might be touched or moved. But in neither case are the words for him. The words the two lovers speak will depend on contexts and prior conversations that he doesn’t know. In a sense, he has no right to judge, because he thinks he knows what the words mean, but he doesn’t, not really.

I want to look more closely at how we in 21st century America interpret language. In upcoming posts, watch for my thoughts on how and why there are so many different ways of interpreting the bible, why Hozier’s beautiful song inspires and offends people with equal intensity, and why it’s important to understand that when we read words or listen to songs or watch movies or even look at dresses, we are often the third. Therefore, when we as thirds make definitive statements about The Real Meaning of some piece of communicative art or language, we are trying to nail clouds to the wall. We are tying poetry to chairs and torturing a confession out of it.

Let’s just let the language speak.



Rhonda is a mother, a singer, a teacher, a writer, reader.  She is also an amazing photographer.  Her blog has become a hang out for quite a crowd of folks looking for a bit of the unusual, the occasional recipe for the kitchen and for life and many lessons on the language of flowers.  Check her out on her blog and on Facebook.


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