Thematic Apperception Tests

I made some bad mistakes. I listened to what some of the songs I love are supposed to mean. The Fool on the Hill is one of my favorite songs. The people consider the man on the hill crazy. They see the sun rise and set, but he sees the world spinning round. He is obviously a Copernican astronomer with a correct view of reality which can only bee seen in the minds eye. An archetypal wise fool. I love the image, and I love the notion of the archetype making it into a popular song.

Then I listened to Paul McCartney’s explanation. He mumbled through an incoherent explanation which had nothing to do with the truth I had so carefully built up. His other explanations of his songs also emptied my soul a trifle.

It was not fair of me. I had gone through a thematic apperception test. I had built a fantasy out of my own unconscious and had expected his ideas to fit me better than my own mind. No one could do that.


As I understand it, the Thematic Apperception Test was developed by a psychologist who observed the reactions of people to the art of Edward Hopper. These realistic paintings are so empty that people project themselves and their stories into the frame. One is shown, say, the nearly empty midnight diner of Nighthawks and asked to tell the psychologist what is happening in the painting. The themes have to come from the subject, because they are not in the painting to be perceived.


Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City always reminds me of Bozeman, Montana when I lived there. More, I see South of Babcock Avenue and somewhere east of Tracy. Quite a fantasy for a painting which cannot depict anything nearer than a thousand miles from there. And one I see although I know I have reversed North and South. The apperception persists.

When I listened to an explanation of Coldplay’s When I Ruled the World I merely convinced myself that the reviewer was a dunderhead.

The song is so obviously about redemption. For what profits a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his soul? The narrator gave up the world, which he used to rule as a god-emperor, to save his soul. The Roman Emperors thought of themselves as ruling the world. To the north they ruled to the dark forests which they did not desire. To the south they ruled to the impassable desert. To the west, the endless ocean sea. They knew the Parthians were to the east but beyond the desert. The Jerusalem bells were ringing in the holy land which the Emperors controlled. Roman Cavalry Choirs singing. Roman troops of course sang cadences and had horns and drums for battle commands. As humans, of course they sang. But there was one time when they sang which was important. When the troops sang out ‘Ave Imperator’ they declared one fit to command Romans. Whence ‘Emperor,’ for only such a man could be declared emperor.

Is my view of this song even remotely representative of the artists’ ideas? Possibly not. I don’t want to know. I know that to refuse to learn the truth is the path to delusion and insanity, but I don’t care. I have had too many songs wrecked for me already.


One comment on “Thematic Apperception Tests

  1. Dan says:

    An artist I follow was reflecting a bit on this from the other side of the fence. He made the comment that another artist often reminded him that once he puts his art out to the public he can no longer control how they see it, or what they want from the piece, creatively. I think that is the way it is supposed to be. It’s always interesting to hear what an artist was thinking when they created a piece, but I never use that as my barometer for how I should be interpreting it.

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