HOW SUBTLE IS SUBTLE?
sub-tle (sut’l) adj. -tler, -tlest. 1. a. So slight as to be difficult to detect or analyze; elusive. b. Not immediately obvious; abstruse. b. Able to make fine distinctions: a subtle mind. 3. a. Characterized by skill or ingenuity; clever. b. Characterized by craft or slyness; devious. c. Operating in a hidden and usually injurious way; insidious. [ME subtil < OFr. sotil < Lat. subtilis.] –sub’tle-ness n. –sub’tly adv. (The American Heritage Dictionary, pg. 1214)
While the general meaning of the word subtle is probably well understood by an overwhelming majority of the English-speaking population, There is a matter of degree which is rarely discussed. How difficult must a characteristic be to detect or analyze before it is labeled subtle? How elusive and abstruse must it be? How fine a distinction must a mind make before we judge it subtle? How clever, devious, or insidious is subtleness? How subtle is subtle? I want to attempt to answer these questions by demonstrating that all subtleness involves an unorthodox exploitation of the redundancy built into all systems of communication.
Subtleness is, among other things, an idea. Because it is an idea, and because ideas are things which are communicated, this essay will focus on subtleness in communication. A more general description of subtleness in other contexts will not be developed because it is not necessary. All things are, to some extent, an idea. And the mere existence of a thing is, to some extent, the communication of that idea. Because this model of communication can be fitted to all things, and because the generalization from subtleness in communication to subtleness of other sorts is an obvious and simple transformation to perform, I will for clarity’s sake focus only on subtleness in communication proper, and not generalize to subtleness of all sorts.
I will also address briefly something which subtleness is not. Subtleness is not a small detail that indicates a significant difference. For example, the sentences “I want to live” and “I want to love” differ only by one letter, yet their meanings are very different. Though the alphanumeric difference between the two sentences is certainly slight, the author would not call the overall difference subtle. For the difference in meaning between the two is plainly and clearly marked. Live and love are common words, and any competent speaker of English knows that attention must be paid to the second letter of each word. Anyone who misses the difference between live and love can rightly be faulted for not paying enough attention.
Those things being said, we begin our discussion on subtleness, and we start by looking at communication itself. In all modes of communication we can find “junk,” extraneous data that carry no useful information. Perhaps as much as 90% of human DNA, for example, codes for nothing at all. This excess of genetic material, like clutter gathered in an attic, is available for future use.
The English language, similarly, contains extensive redundancy. This allows a mangled sentence, such as, “Wh-t h-th G-d wr–ght?” to still be understood.
This is not to suggest that all verbs are unnecessary. On the contrary, the word l-v- could represent lava, lave, Levi, levo, levy, live, Livy, or love. But in the case of levy, the e is an unnecessary redundancy. It adds no new information; l-vy could only be the word levy.
Stated more precisely, this e normally adds no new information. For we can compose the following sentences:
Lately a varying corvee, and levy taxes, have not made that economy measurably unstable. As expected, frequent investment and new options in trades powered repeated and asymptotic home sales.
And in this above example the e in levy does add new information. The sentences are actually a skip code. Beginning with the L in Lately, and counting spaces and punctuation marks, if we were to take every tenth character we would find the message
Lave means, to wash.
Notice that the e in the encoded Lave came from the e in the original levy. The e of levy now carries an extra amount of meaning. For had this e been left out of Lave, there would have been trouble in distinguishing Lave from Lava. We can see just how important the e has become by replacing Lave with Lava (resulting in: Lava means, to wash.), thereby confusing the coded message in a very non-subtle way.
And a skip code could certainly be described as subtle. Although easy to decode, skip codes are hard to detect; outwardly they contain nothing to alert the reader to their presence.
Consider another example. In the book of Proverbs, chapter 31, 22 verses are devoted to describing the wife of noble character. It begins with 31:10 which states, “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (NRSV) or, alternately, “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” (KJV). Most commentators on Proverbs (every one I have found, actually) interpret this in a straightforward way as nothing more than a statement about a good wife being more valuable than rubies. But much earlier in the book of Proverbs, in verses 3:13-15 we see
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. (NRSV)
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things that thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. (KJV)
Wisdom here is described as something feminine, and something more valuable than jewels or rubies. It would seem then that Proverbs 31:10 has actually answered its own question: Wisdom will find a capable, virtuous wife.
The subtle message in Proverbs plays on the double meaning of the phrase “her price is far above rubies.” This applies equally well to wisdom as it does to a noble wife. Many other things could also fit this description; daughters, God, and Law could all be seen as feminine things with value above rubies. Could Proverbs have meant any of them instead? Common sense tells us that Proverbs probably does not advocate employing daughters to find wives, if for no other reason than because a daughter presupposes a wife. But what about God and Law? And what about all the other things of the world that could be described as more precious than rubies? More on these in a moment.
The distinction to be drawn in Proverbs between wisdom and the noble wife requires many more symbols for its expression than the simple difference between lava and lave. And yet the distinction remains subtle enough that most (all?) biblical commentators never notice it. This returns us to our question, how subtle is subtle? Why is it that Proverbs is subtle, and live/ love is not? How subtle does it need to be before we call it subtle?
The answer to this question can be illustrated by applying our skip code rule to Proverbs 3:13-15. Taking every tenth character yields
Htfms dh erbneph,isoh
Hhtwa dtntr seerf rsilnhd u,
both strings of utter nonsense. We normally do not apply skip codes to most sections of text for the same reason that we do not exhaustively explore every possible double meaning; nonsense is all that would result. (And this is why arguments will not be offered here, or elsewhere, to explain why Pv 31:10 does not refer to God, or Law, or a myriad of other candidates.) It is unreasonable to search all texts for skip code messages, especially when one considers that a skip code interval may be of any length; it is not limited to ten, and so it is a search without an end.
Skip codes aside, there are a limitless number of other permutations of rules that can be applied to a given text. Words may represent other words, the first letter of every word may be collected to create new words, variations in the pitch size may possess some pattern, as may the number of words on a page, or the color of the paper. None of these possibilities are routinely examined because they are usually meaningless.
These and other features correspond to the “junk” in DNA. The color of the paper is available for conveying information, if we ever want to employ it. But most of the time paper color is a junk detail, as redundant as it is meaningless. (Even when it does convey information, it does so redundantly; a bit of blue in the corner could tell us as much as a field of blue across the entire page.)
But a perfectly coherent message can be embedded in any of these or other ways. When information is hidden in such a place, a place where a reasonable audience probably will not look, it is communicated via that which is usually “junk” and redundancy. Because redundancy is not intended as a primary repository of new data it is never routinely checked, and information hidden there might never be found again.
Using junk and redundancy to communicate is qualitatively different from using small details. For small details are (with rare exception) non-redundant, and are missed only by one who makes an unintentional mistake. But the receiver of a message who does not find every hidden, subtle meaning in the redundancies is guilty only of reasonably allocating finite time to the interpreting of that message.
A careful distinction must be made here, however; for an element may be both a redundancy and a small detail. The abbreviation sec. can mean “secretary,” “sector,” or the Latin secundum. The period at the end of this abbreviation is something of a redundancy; it is obvious that we are dealing with an abbreviation, we do not really need a period to tell us this. On the other hand, the abbreviation sec means “secant,“ “second,” “or “secondary.” There is a clear difference between sec and sec., but a reasonable audience may well fail to note whether there was a period at the end of the concerned abbreviation. Contextual clues will no doubt make clear the form of sec or sec. that is intended. But the difference between the two abbreviations is subtle, subtle enough that if the period were mistakenly added or omitted, the mistake may never be noticed, and the intended meaning not obscured.
Subtleness occurs when the importance of a communicated idea is disproportionately larger than the prominence given to the means of communication of this idea. This disparity between importance of the idea and the prominence of its mode of communication is achieved through the unorthodox exploitation of the redundancy built into all modes of communication. When a significant idea is communicated exclusively through the “junk” and redundancy, and not through the primary communication mode, we label the resulting effect subtle.