An Embarrassment of Riches
The many ways to approach books, movies, and music.
I’ve always liked the phrase “an embarrassment of riches”. It has the same strange out-of-place-ness as found in the phrase “a murder of crows”. And though I enjoy the former phrase for its melodic balance and evocative juxtaposition of nouns, there is a fractional disconnect between its meaning and my experience, because there is a page-long list of feelings I’d have about a surplus of wealth – from surprise through joy to relief – that I would have to traverse before arriving anywhere near embarrassment.
That said, finding the subject of my last essay to contain far more material to write about than one piece of writing could serve well, I feel somewhat sheepish at returning to that topic – Hayley Williams’ album Petals for Armor – to begin this essay. The writerly worry is that my reader will suspect a drought of inspiration on my part, rather than a deep well to be plumbed in Williams’ music. Let me rush to persuade you then that the lyrics in Petals for Armor do indeed provide an unfolding cosmos of space to explore. There are, after all, as many readings of a text (to use the popularised academic jargon) as there are readers.
For example: Williams herself has discussed her song “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ in terms of a positive refusal to look in judgement on other people. When she asks in the first verse, “What do you care if I grow?” she is examining the critical stare levelled at women (often by other women) who are doing well in life, and when she sings that “roses show no concern for colours of a violet”, she is hoping that people might become more like flowers, which simply grow without envy of the beauty of other flowers. Williams’ own intent notwithstanding, I read these lyrics very differently.
Earlier in the song, Williams sings, “I am in a garden, tending to my own.” I can’t help but hear, echoing through this line, the closing refrain to Voltaire’s Candide – “We must cultivate our garden.” The ending to Candide is itself bountiful with a multitude of interpretations. Some take it as a pragmatic suggestion to create paradise rather than merely assuming it. It strikes me instead as advocating – or at least presenting – a pseudo-nihilistic apathy. Instead of philosophising with Voltaire’s Pangloss about “effects and causes, the best of all possible worlds, the origin of evil, [and] the nature of the soul” (metaphysical questions that leave him with a literal door slammed in his face), we ought to keep quiet and keep busy with the menial tasks of little lives, such as tending to our gardens.
When Williams sings about tending to her garden, she invokes for me this idea of social and political apathy, which acts as a set-up to the question “What do you care if I grow?” Why should anyone care to hear about anyone else’s struggles? When she sings of the indifference of the rose to the violet, which it “shows no concern for”, I hear Candide resisting the curiosity of Pangloss and insisting on a myopic view of his own small life. I take all of this as a challenge – semi-rhetorical, semi-sincere – to the storytelling of art. Why write books, make movies, or create any kind of art about other people, and why read, watch, listen to, or in other ways consume those stories?
The rest of the song suggests some answers. Empathy plays a key part, as Williams thinks “of all the wilted women” and recalls that she was once a “wilted woman” too. Having once forgotten her “roots” – that which reaches out beyond herself and draws nourishment from a common source – she now taps back into this shared soil and is able at last to “bloom”. In many ways, however, these answers are less important than the questions, and I am grateful for art that asks them. On other listens, I hear the song as Williams intended it to be heard. On other occasions, I will undoubtedly hear other versions of what it might be asking.
The literary scholar Azar Nafisi once set her students the task of explaining “the significance of the word upsilamba in the context of [Vladimir Nabokov’s] Invitation to a Beheading”. Nafisi herself believes upsilamba to likely be one of Nabokov’s invented words, perhaps a flight of linguistic fancy that signifies little more than a sesquipedalian propensity to verbosity so great that all of the already-invented words are not enough for him.
Nafisi tells us about this question in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and reveals that she was not after a “correct” answer but was intending to stoke curiosity. Few of her students had much to say in response, except for the small cadre of pupils she continued to train in the art of reading after the revolution forced Iranians to pursue freedom in private and under threat of severe penalty if caught. Interpretations of upsilamba from this cohort ranged from “the impossible joy of a suspended leap” to the “paradox of a blissful sigh”.
This openness in translating a fantastical word into something meaningful for each of them is just one manifestation of the freedom in literature so necessary to Nafisi and her students. Nabokov is, in many ways, the perfect author for those living in the oppressive tyranny of a theocratic state. This is not because Lolita (possibly his most famous book, certainly his most infamous) is an analogy for their situation as women readers in Iran. Nafisi goes out of her way to state unequivocally that she and her students “were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea”. The novel says nothing specific about the Islamic republic, “but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives”.
Nafisi lays out the many ways in which Lolita stands against totalitarianism, but I think the fundamental manner in which the book and its author stand in opposition is in their openness. I read Lolita as, in part, a love letter to language, and others read it as a thinly-veiled confession of illicit sexual desires; some read Nabokov to be awed, others to be challenged, and others read him simply because his name insists on dropping itself into every list of “must read” authors. Readers are varied, and so are their reasons for reading, as are the things they take away from their reading.
Nabokov’s books are never one thing, and they invite us to find many things within them. Not for Nabokov the despotism of the author’s will over the reader’s reading, and this generosity and openness stand in defiance against the dictates of the Iranian theocracy. While the blind censor attempts to force all art through the meat-grinder of religious dogma, Nabokov declares that “readers were born free and ought to remain free”.
Literature – as with great music and the best movies – is open not only to the wide breadth of all possible readers but is also open across the length of an individual’s lifetime. If my reading of a text is different to a friend’s reading of the same thing – a friend who brings to it her own grab-bag of history, assumptions, prejudices, and a database of mere facts – then my reading of a text today can be just as wildly different to my own reading of that same text in the future or in the past. Books that changed me at nineteen transformed me (in part) into someone utterly untouched today by what I found so moving back then. Movies I couldn’t understand or failed to connect with long ago are cracked open by the education of the intervening years, so that I am now equipped to plumb the depths beneath the surface I was once stuck at.
Once we begin learning to be autodidacts, works of art can become lifelong companions that grow with us and continue to yield insight, rather than serving a finite purpose (often the filling of a few otherwise dead hours) before eventually being left behind. We have some very old traditions that do this: First to my mind is the strain of Jewish thought that sees theology as an argument rather than a set of doctrinal answers, a process rather than a final word. In his incessant questioning, Socrates did not have an end goal or destination in mind; his was a journey aimed only at the pure “love of wisdom” itself. I want to suggest adding to those faith and philosophical traditions the way we read, watch, and listen to literature, cinema, and music.
And what other parts of life can we bring into this approach, of grappling and engaging with instead of merely, transiently, touching the surface of the matter at hand? Why not life itself? Christopher Hitchens told readers of his memoir that he wanted “to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive” sense. Agreed, but why wait until the end? Life can and – if the postmodern sensibilities of our times will allow for an unfashionable value judgement – should be lived in the active sense.
Engaging with art creatively and purposefully rather than passively consuming it can be, I have found, a thing of beauty in its own right and a wonderful method of actively living life. Once you begin to approach the world in this way, you discover that there is more to it, and much more to that more, than a single life could ever contain or grow bored of. The world will never run out of things to tell you if you never stop asking. Life itself is an embarrassment of riches.
• Petals for Armor, Hayley Williams (2020)
• Candide, Voltaire (1759)
• Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi (2003)
• Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (1980)
• Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens (2010)