Later, he will buy her unusual flowers, but only as a surprise and always in the guise of reciprocating for something that she did for him. He thus transforms with a magical snap of his fingers how they will understand what has happened. This is the character I play during a seduction. He is an exaggeration of my least important aspects, a mask. Indeed, the crossword puzzle once solved loses its allure. How enticing she had been, with her grid of blanks, her scattered answers, her letter z that suggested intriguing possibilities—and now she lies dead on the page, a tombstone of disembodied words, signifying nothing with a nod of acknowledgement to Macbeth. But Macbeth, like all beautiful texts, is deathless. We can forever smell its sweet putrefaction. Oscar Wilde tells us somewhere in his ridiculous essay, The Critic as Artist, that beautiful books are flowers that we smell in new ways. Actually, Wilde writes nothing of the sort, but meanings are imperfectly transmitted. No two readers descend the same mossy riverbank into Dante’s L’inferno. And yet, pari passu with Wilde, “We can say to ourselves, ‘Tomorrow, at dawn, we shall walk with grave Virgil through the valley of the shadow of death,’ and lo! The dawn finds us in the obscure wood, and the Mantuan stands by our side. We pass through the gate of the legend fatal to hope, and with pity or with joy behold the horror of another world.”
Accompany Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope into that horror, and we view a different landscape. Dickens gives us an expressionist nightmare of eccentrics who, like paper marionettes, seem to cut themselves out of the page and totter under their crazy hats at midnight between houses that shadow them like pickpockets. Trollope gives us a reality that is fantastical because it is too rational, in neat, buttoned sentences that always know that every wearer of a shirt will be walking on a level avenue. Such are these writers as read through the channel of my brain. There are other fruitful readings. As the obnoxious William Empson would say, “Ambiguity is the gem through whose facets a book can be understood in a multiplicity of ways.” Of course, this quote isn’t sufficiently turgid to be an authentic quote from Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, but I’ll ascribe it to Empson nonetheless. If I were the impish Claude Shannon, I would express the same idea mathematically:
H(gibberish) > H(artistic text) > H(simplistic text)
where H is the entropy of a message, or the measure of a text’s disorder. That is, gibberish such as “noAca tMa ta” has a higher entropy than “a cat on a mat.” Likewise, if we are certain that every letter in a transmission will be the letter z, then the entropy of the message will be zero because each new transmission of the letter z delivers no new information. This is analogous to reading a popular romance, where the heroine is always a virgin, the hero always handsome, and the ending always a happy union, all written in short sentences, many of which are guaranteed to include the words “eyes,” “smiling,” and “heart.”
We might therefore compare a book with a tray of ice cubes. A tray of ice cubes has a certain temperature. This is its macro state. To find its microstate, we would need to specify the position and velocity of every water molecule in the tray. There are many possible microstates of molecules that correspond to the same macro state (the same temperature) of the ice cubes. Likewise, a popular romance can be comprised of many different combinations of words, without ever becoming a more interesting text. But as the ice cubes melt, the possible microstates of the molecules increase as the ice de-crystallizes.
Of course, if a text has too many microstates—too many ways in which it can be read—then it becomes a mere jumble of random letters, which could encode any message whatsoever. Thus, “leebufboasitsgorfests” could say anything you wish, even something much longer than a book, should you decide that each letter represents a book itself, generated by whatever algorithm you choose; and indeed, anyone’s interpretation would be as coherent (and as unconvincing to others) as anyone else’s interpretation. Such a jumble of nonsense is inartistic because it isn’t even a language. By contrast, the artistic text will have sufficient entropy to be conceivable coherently and clearly in many interesting ways. And the masterpiece will stand this side of the edge of the inexpressible.
Most popular fiction sustains only one coherent reading. A story such as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, however, can stoutly support very diverse interpretations. That is, the macro state of being The Metamorphosis corresponds with a number of coherent microstates by which it can be interpreted. The story is simultaneously a fantasy of being transformed into a beetle; a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of work; a moralizing tale of an insect with a human heart; a fairy tale in the tradition of the evil sister; a metaphorical description of clinical depression; a recounting of a nightmare; a tour de force patterned on the number three and the opening of doors; a darkly erotic tale sprung by the picture of a woman whose forearm is inserted into a muff; and so on. The information, therefore, contained in an artistic book is higher than the information contained in a simplistic book. When I presented this inequality to Steven Chew, a software engineer with expertise in cybersecurity, he said that the entropy, or a numerical approximation of components of the entropy, such as sentence complexity and variability, could be calculated for texts such as Shakespeare and then used as a benchmark for a computer to evaluate a rough estimate of the artistry of millions of eBooks, for selection for further evaluation by a human being, as the entropy is only one factor in a text’s artistry.
There are as many versions of a text as there are minds that receive it. Nevertheless, the variety of configurations in which an artistic text can be coherently received is far greater than the note on your door to “Please keep your cat off my porch!” And this is why beauty may sometimes seem subjective. Beauty is as objective as the number fifty-five, but not everyone perceives it, just as not everyone obtains seventeen when adding nine and eight. Neither beauty nor mathematics is less objective because of a miscalculation. Shannon would call such miscalculations “a defective result that has filtered through a communication channel that is either inadequate or full of noise,” noises such as the vain chatter of social commentary, the dreadful drone of practical applicability, or even those most horrid screams called “what everyone thinks.” And this is why I always leave a flower. Every girl ought to understand a flower, and many do, at least the ones with whom I fall in love. Ah, but does she say, “Thank you for the lovely rosa palustris—from me, your rosa virginiana,” speaking with the gentle admonition of a virgin? Or does the flower inspire in her a reflection on Persephone? Or will she know its symbolism like Perdita? Then—perhaps, I’ll stay to talk.
Of course, if she happens to be Jane Austen, she will thank me with an epigram so precise and perfect that I might remain seated on the side of her bed indefinitely, or even accompany her into her garden to hear another story about the priceless Fanny Price, who certainly knew the meaning of flowers.
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical and surreal novel about a man lost in a Mansion of Left Turns who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon. Here is the link: