How Deep is Deep?



The other day, a nineteen-year old student asked me “how deep do you want us to be?” This while he was writing an essay analyzing a story. I was stymied. “What do you mean by deep?”  I said. He couldn’t or wouldn’t say, not believing that I didn’t understand. But really I didn’t. What is deep anything when you’re not talking volume and physical capacity?

I wanted the students to give me accurate observations in well-formed sentences that added up to interesting paragraphs. When we read a short story, we might note that a character in unhappy. That’s information stated on the page; it’s not deep.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this question.

Saying that in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” we never learn the reason why Gregor Samsa is transformed into a bug is also not being deep. It’s simply repeating what is evident. Painting an abstract artwork in primary colors is not deep; it may be successful or it may be kitsch. Deep it ain’t. Painting or photographing a portrait in which the person is not smiling is not deep either.

So, between you and me, what is deep?

Is “deep” seeing that a work of art, visual or literary, is layered? The layers can be formalist, historical, symbolic, psychological, sociological, and so forth. Discussing the various layers doesn’t seem deep. Sometimes it’s tedious. Sometimes it’s fascinating,

Or maybe a painting, a film, or a poem can move you intensely. Okay, is that what we mean when we say deep? But that’s a reaction, and we don’t control those.

Maybe the work of art discusses ideas overtly so that we’re required to know something about them. Like Sartre’s novel Nausea and the philosophy of existentialism.

Probably ‘deep’ signifies a way of looking at something when you don’t really get it at all and you are reluctant to put in the effort to learn.

A few years ago there was a wave of books with “deep” in the title. One, called Deep Play, particularly irked me. I never read it. But, come on: deep play? Whatever happened to just—play? There were concepts like “deep relationship,”  “deep dialogue,” and “deep beauty” in vogue.  Oh that was the eighties, one can say. What seemed to have happened is that the usual meaning of play, relationship, dialogue, beauty had disappeared. We no longer understood or even saw these words. So there was an attempt to re-contextualize them. Like re-gifting at Christmas.

I don’t think it’s getting better. Words don’t communicate much, other than hit-or-miss scatter technique. Fire enough words, unrelated and irrelevant, at the reader and something is bound to stick and provoke a reaction.  A real estate sign the other day: Semi-waterfront view. Um, so, is it waterfront or water-view? “Semi” gives it the cachet of promises without commitment. The words actually mean very little. They are signs to a dream.

There are a lot of things I don’t understand. That doesn’t make them deep. Maybe in a culture that worships surfaces and technologies, certain questions are a luxury and a mystery. But never a mystery that might be discussed.  That would be too deep.


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