Meaningful Design

When things are in order—when the furniture in a room or the food on a plate is arranged and not just thrown together—we seem to feel more at ease, largely so, perhaps, because we sense being a part of something purposeful. Someone designed this room or this meal, had a pattern in mind, and now we find ourselves a part of that pattern, if only by observing it. We see meaning in pattern and design, and meaningfulness is, as the philosophers say, axiomatic—self-evident and needing no justification.

Art, at least as it has been traditionally conceived, is about the communication of meaning, each kind of art arranging its elements into significant forms to make an idea known. What we want to say and how we say it are mutually engaged, and changing the one will affect the other. For that reason it becomes important to understand the artistic elements we encounter and reflect sometimes on the purpose of a certain arrangement. Take, for example, this one sentence from Edith Wharton’s short story “The Other” (quoted here from 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005). The subject is marriage, and the narrator is telling the thoughts of one of the main characters:

For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened.

I find this sentence just beautifully drawn, masterfully balanced to carry its heady ideas and finely adjusted to suggest other ideas it does not explicitly name. Now if that is my reaction, I am under a certain obligation (to myself at the least) to say what it is about this sentence, its forms and how they’re arranged, that I believe has caused this reaction in me. I must, in other words, tie what I feel to the text, anchor my subjective response to the objective construction of the sentence, in order to avoid the charge of subjectivism, or even solipsism—that all the world, in the end, is nothing more than my own precious self.

So what do we see here? Really, just one distinct assertion about marriage, that it was an art. From that point forward to the end of the sentence we have for the most part prepositional phrases that are describing—what? Art? Marriage? Both? We can’t really say with the evidence that a courtroom would demand, because there is no subject explicitly stated for the verb made up. But only the courtroom, a too severe rationality, would be confused, for surely the absence of a subject for this verb is purposeful: to suggest that art is marriage and marriage is an art; that the two are coterminous, and what applies to one applies to the other.

Now that’s quite a statement, and to support the thesis, the sentence first builds a line of three prepositional phrases, naming the preposition of just once: of concessions, eliminations and embellishments. All three objects of that preposition are abstract nouns, ideas that answer what constitutes the art of marriage. But at the semicolon, things change. Two more constituting ideas, lights and shadows, are not only named, but put into action, and put into action wisely: judiciously thrown and skillfully softened. What precedes the semicolon are ideas, and what follows are actions, ideas and actions being two sides of the same coin, suggesting that the theory and practice of marriage are indissociable. And what would be the textual evidence for that implication? Semicolons normally sectionalize a statement; what is on one side of the mark is related in its own right to what is on the other side. In Wharton’s sentence, though, the semicolon sits between five prepositional phrase, all of which are working to the same end, saying what the art of marriage is made up of. The semicolon here is not sectionalizing related ideas, but distinguishing between ideas and ideas in action. The syntax before the semicolon flows over the barrier of the punctuation mark and continues on after it, concluding the assertion in a finely balanced phrase.

Form is so important to consider because the entirety of what something means is often greater than what first appears. Form can imply a deeper, richer significance to a patent idea, and if we can understand how the elements of an art, here the art of writing, work standardly, we can find a clue to what perhaps an author was further implying, whether she knew it consciously herself or not. Such is the mystery of an art, which might just be, in the end, a game of hide and seek.


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