The Illustration Saga

My recent article for the Boston Globe included this unassuming concoction by way of illustration:

Sure, it’s nice, but I would have thought no more of it but for a message from my dear friend Thinker Bill Hackett, Santa Barbaraño extraordinaire. He began:

I was impressed with the Globe people who did that little illustration.

If you find, who created the jewel, I’d like to ask for that person’s interpretation of what the illustration illustrates! 🙂

I’d discuss what I see, but I don’t want to pollute anyone else’s thinking before they put their own clearly in mind. I know what I see and will save for maybe later.

May I ask what you see?

Then, maybe ask if you will ask the artist what he intended?

(Or, “what she intended” except that I am over 40. And the “he” included “her”.) 🙂

Also, note well, please: I would like to buy an autographed original. 🙂

Seriously. My limit though is probably like the price of a good lunch — maybe two at Farmer Boy? 🙂 ($25?)

Never to let Thinker Bill down, I duly got in touch with my editor at the Globe, who replied,

The illustration was done by the Ideas section’s art director, Greg Klee: he literally composed it as he designed the page. He’s very good — although I suspect he would not have nearly as much to say about its meaning as your friend hopes…

Not an hour passed (59 minutes to be precise) before I heard from the aptly-named Mr. Klee himself:

My intent was to show one person is walking away from the churches and the ‘rest of society’ and to be perfectly happy doing so. Is that deep enough? I’d love to know what Mr. Hackett saw?

Upon sharing these remarks with the Thinker, he saw fit to rejoin:

Noting the article’s illustration (which I found to be a first class illustration for my taste and opinion (rare)), I focused the aging visual sensors of it and they sent to the old upstairs computer which then whirred and went to its answering via “What is this? What do I see?”

The initial report was highly favorable. Very highly. “Positive! Positive! Positive! Worth considering. Worth considering. Worth considering. ”

Clean lines. Happy. Cheerful. Clearly positive!

And WOW…all about “religion” and yet with no arguing. 🙂


Towers and spires and domes and churches, temples, mosques?

… and all of them seen as a worthy and positive!

Wow. Good stuff.


Undefined but apparently nice people (Nice people. You know — people just like me. [ No wonder I liked the portrayal. ]

But that was not the end of it. 23 minutes later, Hackett continued:

Just as the semanticist said. “The meaning is not in the word. The meaning is in the mind.”

The illustration’s meaning is not in the illustration. The meaning is in the mind.

“Truth and beauty are in the mind of the beholder….”


The Correct Vision of the Illustration

[ Note that I do not believe there is one “correct” vision. There are several, including the artist;s and yours and my own. ]

If you see the illustration as a charming positive, a whole crowd of people are heading toward their religion to get the spiritual lift and to enjoy the togetherness they anticipate from visiting their house of worship.

My vision? All very positive.

And this is topped off with a charming illustrated note that rings like crystal: One man is especially cheerful. Alive and well, he has already experienced his visit to his house of the spirit and is now so happy inside that he is called to whistle his pleasure.

And then, nearly six hours later!

Yeah! Publicity! Fame and fortuoon (sic) await! I very much liked the little illustration. Quite seriously think quite highly of it.

Do you see several interpretations? Example: The unchurched happy character doesn’t need all that stuff. The nonconformist may be either an early churchgoer should got happy ahead of the rush or perhaps a follower of some guru who believes God is best known by whistling on the streets?

As friend Vernon Johnson once said of real estate “deals”, so with churches and temples and mosques, and all… “Any deal’s a good deal if you look at it long enough.”

And, while on the general subject, everyone is roaring and rioting, hollering, ( and writing.) over the definition of the three-letter word. 🙂

Vastness over to you.

And finally, the next moring, the gentleman made a most appealing proposal (by “The Center” he means none other, of course, than The Center for the Study of Social Structures):

[ Between you and Mr, Klee cooperating in creating museum-quality, 100% response-drawing First Class letter mailings, The Center should garner at least one donor’s interest and support. Shucks, one billion is all we need.

And, you and Mr. Klee may thence enjoy Open Residence Fellowships with the Center in sunny Santa Barbara-by-the-Sea, with airline passes (for two, each, of course) good anytime you want and a well-stocked Center Guest Quarters (Maybe just at San Ysidro Ranch or the Biltmore? ]

As ever, let us heed Thinker Bill Hackett in his reminder (he is always giving such reminders) to look harder and give glory to the good things.





6 responses to “The Illustration Saga”

  1. Fatima

    What an interesting discussion! As an art historian, its interesting to see the different interpretations applied to a single illustration. It brings back memories of my first year as a grad student taking the department’s colloquium in theories and practices. We talked a lot about how interpretation of images [and other visual/material culture] cannot be limited to discussions of what the artist meant. The meaning taken of an image is intrinsically dependant upon the viewer’s own circumstance, including their social background, their gender, the period they live in etc. And each of these interpretations/meanings are valid.

    The other interesting thing about this image is how the religious architecture is limited to representations of Abrahamic religions.

  2. On the last point—I think that’s in some respects fitting. As I suggest in the article, irreligion tends to retain much from the religions it came out of. And, in that article, the main traditions at issue were Christianity and Judaism.

    In fact, people who consider themselves irreligious so far as Abrahamic traditions often end up getting quite religious in non-Abrahamic “religions”—like Sam Harris, for instance.

  3. sabrina

    This was lovely! Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Loved this discussion also. Glad to see Fato weighing in! I gave the drawing my own reflections here:

  5. Thanks for this, Eli. Let me quote one passage from your post:

    Richard Rubenstein’s 1966 book, After Auschwitz, which I discovered on my parents’ bookshelf at age 17, did more than any other work to shatter my teenaged relatively traditional theology of a present God. But unlike Rubenstein and most other “radical” theologians dating back to Nietzsche’s madman, I found the “death of God” to be an utterly liberating event. God was dead, the question of why-bad-things-happen-to-good-people was a bit closer to an answer, and for the love of the world, anything was possible.

    I very much share your sense of liberation in the death of God, but I’ve felt a similar liberation also in the life of God too; both repeatedly. Here’s a passage from a comment I made last year on a post by Saba Mahmood at The Immanent Frame:

    Secularists rejoice in the experience of liberation in secularism, and it is true, this liberation comes from a critique. It can be emotionally exhilarating, filled with the thrill of unsettling old dogmas and seeing the world with fresh eyes. I give it that.

    But this is not lost on so-called religion either. Much the same exhilaration, built also on a kind of critique, is part of the experience of cradle-secularists who “find religion.” I myself was one; when I was 18 years old, I converted to Catholicism from my secular upbringing. It was a thrilling experience, a liberating one, built on a critique of how secularism had fallen short. Since, I have undergone a number of pendulum-swings back and forth between secular and religious thinking. Each move has been infused with its own form of critique and its own sense of exhilarated liberation.

  6. Fatima

    And the discussion continues…

    I was reading the NYT this morning and Charles M. Blow’s op-ed piece, “Defecting to Faith” ( fits in well with the discussion here. The article describes something similar to your own experience Nathan of the move from a secular life to a religious one. And what he describes isn’t necessarily belief in God but rather what he refers to as the fulfilment of “the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism”.