You ever wonder how reading actually works? I don’t mean the most fundamental kind of reading — you know, looking a word and knowing what it means. However, there’s actually not much difference between the two kinds of reading. What I do mean is the kind of reading where you finish a poem and you know what it meant — not what it said, but what it meant. I find my students often don’t know the difference. So I’m pretty good at explaining it. I thought it might be interesting to talk about it. At a simple level, the way you read a poem is the way you read a tarot card or a painting or a situation. It’s all about triangulation.
I’m not going to be giving you much that’s revolutionary or anything, but I’m not sure anyone else uses “triangulation” as a model. If you see someone who does, let me know about it!
So, first, what is triangulation. Like, for real, not in my model of reading? Well, it’s a way to find information if you have some other information. Here’s a simple example, from a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Musgrave Ritual.” Holmes has to follow the tracks of a man who has disappeared. There’s a “treasure map” with riddles. One is the classic “go left, then right, then so on” set of directions, but it begins at the top of the shadow of a tree on a certain day. But the tree’s been cut down.
Could you do it? No way! Not with the information available. But what if you knew the height of the tree before it was cut down? Holmes does know that, as the house’s owner remembers it from when the tree was cut down. Holmes takes a stick, which he knows the height of. Then he waits for the right day. He puts the stick in the ground and measures its shadow and direction. based on the length of the stick’s shadow, he now knows the length of the tree’s — because he knows the ratio of shadow length. From there Holmes measures out the missing shadow and goes on his way.
Basically triangulation is using triangles, which follow known patterns, to figure out missing information. The tree was one side of the triangle. Holmes wanted to know the other arm, that lay along the ground. So he made a smaller triangle and plotted its distances. With the pattern, he could then plot the distance of the larger triangle.
So why is that my model of reading? Well, reading is intaking and synthesizing a series of symbols. At the basic level, you take in words, or letters, and come up with meanings. While the essay or story may be new to you, the words aren’t. You already know those. So the basic “triangle” is that there’s you at one point, and the text at another. “You” are a collection of pieces of information, like what the word “triangle” refers to. When you see “triangle,” you recall the idea. Sort of. Neurologically that’s not how it works. We’re using a model, not describing the process literally.
What the hell is the point? Well, go up one level higher and the missing part of the triangle matters. It’s the “meaning” of the piece. So you watch a film and someone gets shot. Then the film cuts to a sunset. You know that sunsets mean endings, as they mark the ending of their days. And you have the information that a character was shot. So you triangulate the two pieces of information to come up with a third: the character is dead.
Simple, right? When you do that, it happens so quickly you don’t notice it. But when you deal with more complicated interpretations, you may have to work through the stages, which are, in themselves, smaller triangles.
Let’s use a tarot card as an example now. Let’s take an example from my previous post on the Sex Pistols. The song “EMI” is about a company that fired the band. That’s one corner of the triangle. A second corner is the card I drew, which was the four of wands.
Telescope time. The four of wands is, itself, a smaller triangle. One corner is the card itself, the picture. Another corner is all the information we have about the card: that fours mean stability, that wands refer to passion. So the third corner, the interpretation, is that the card is about making a celebratory space. Passion + stability = party, basically.
Well, now that we know that, come back up to the previous layer. Our tarot interpretation of “EMI” is “the band got fired” + 4 of Wands = X. Written another way, it’s “the band got fired” + (passion + stability) = X.” We can resolve that down to “the band got fired” + celebration = X. And, as you can see in the post, we arrive, then, at X = the band is celebrating being fired by a bunch of inauthentic morons. That reading, of course, requires even more triangles, like about the band’s history.
That seems really complicated, right? It’s not. You do it thousands of times a day. You just have to layer them up, over and over, until you get a really big triangle with “THE MEANING” at one corner.
Let’s model this again, from the beginning. We won’t use a tarot card this time. Like I said it’s the way we read everything. Let’s take a single symbol from a really famous novel: Moby-Dick.
I certainly hope you’ve read this book, as it’s excellent. If you haven’t just, because, you know, you’re busy, there’s no shame. It’s pretty long. However, if you’re putting it off because you think it’s boring or something, you’re a crazy person.
So, what symbol could we possibly choose? Well, the whale is pretty obvious, right? I’m going to give you the answer now, so you can follow the model easily. The whale is God.
Wow, that was simple!
OK, seriously though. What? For real, though, the whale is God.
There are two basic triangulations necessary to reach that conclusion. One is purely textual, and built of hundreds of smaller triangles. Here’s a sampling:
The narrator is important; the narrator chooses a Biblical fake name
The whale is mysterious; God is mysterious
biology is equated with religious studies in the novel; pursuing the whale is an act of biological study
(that one’s built of this smaller triangle: there’s a whole chapter on the ways whaling has added to our understanding of biology)
You’ll notice I left out the third point of each triangle. They build up in kind of a chain. So each leads to the next, in a weird, nesting doll kind of way.
There are fare more bits and pieces necessary to accept, fully, that the whale is God. But let’s assume for now that we did all that. If I wrote them all out, this post would be longer than the book itself. That’s a model of a triangulating reading.
However, it’s not the whole reading, right? We’re missing the MEANING.
We need one more triangle. If THE MEANING is at one corner, the other two are “the whale is God” and “Ahab wants the whale dead.”
Why the fuck does Ahab want God dead? Well, what does “God” do throughout the novel? Ruin people’s lives, kill them, curse them, set them on petty and useless tasks, and disappear with no explanations. Sound like anyone you know?
Early in the book, Ishmael says God is a shoddy workman — if a contractor built a house as badly as God had built the human body, he’d be fired.
God is awful. God should die. That’s the book. That’s what’s happening there.
This isn’t to say Melville wasn’t Christian. He was. Sort of. But the novel is pointing out all the problems in Christian theology. It’s focused mostly on the “problem of pain.” How could God allow bad things to happen? The book challenges the reader with the idea that God just doesn’t give a shit. What do we do then?
Well, to fill in the final triangle, we live like Ishmael and Queequeg. Humanity, brotherhood, human love, those things make life worth living. God is just a big, mysterious thing out in the depths of the universe. Maybe it has a plan, or maybe not. But just ignore that. Love one another.
You seriously need to read Moby-Dick. Now I want to read it again. Dang.