In his novel Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham pays a great deal of attention to a small tapestry that the novel’s hero, Philip Carey, acquires during his time in France. Receiving the gift from one of his fellow artists there, Philip is told several times that the meaning of the tapestry cannot be told to him, but it is something that he must figure out for himself. He is aware that there is meaning in it, but he is frustrated that no one will tell him what the meaning is supposed to be. In a pivotal moment in the second half of the novel, the character’s on-again, off-again trollop, whose adorable child he is fond of, is frustrated at her lack of control over him that her sexuality had always had, and she destroys everything he owns, including the tapestry, and Philip eventually realizes for himself at least that the tapestry is a symbol of his own life, with repetitive elements of comedy and tragedy, that symbolizes the way his life is designed by another and that no matter which way he turns he cannot escape the fact that his life has a pattern and a shape to it that reflects a larger purpose and order and structure to life. It is a remarkable insight for someone who spends much of the novel avoiding insight by adopting a tone of false calm and irony.
In early 1971, singer-songwriter Carole King released her second album, called Tapestry. The song has sold more than 25 million copies around the world, making it among the best-selling albums of all time. Even if one has never listened to the album in its entirety, a lot of the songs have become enduringly popular in oldies and easy listening formats and have been covered to great affect by other artists. Songs like “So Far Away,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Where You Lead,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” are enduring songs, whether in her version or others. And not only was her songwriting in fine form on the album, but she had some great help from her friends, who included such luminaries as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and many others who supplemented her spare woman with a piano approach. The songs on the album have been covered by many artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Richard Marx, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, Quincy Jones, Amy Winehouse, Laura Branigan, and many others. The album as a whole managed to balance between the singer’s interpretations of her own songs that had already been hits for other musicians and new songs that reflected a strong sense of melancholy. The tapestry that King put together was a beautiful one, but a deeply sad one.
Although I am by no means an expert when it comes to fabrics, I have read at least a few books on tapestry. One of the most interest of these books was a new historical interpretation of the Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of the fatal conflict between Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and William the Conqueror of Normandy. The book  makes a persuasive case that the tapestry itself subtly undercuts the Norman claims for legitimacy by pointing out the coercion that Harold was under when he was demanded to make an oath of fealty to William after he had been shipwrecked on the Norman shore, and that William the Conqueror received a great deal of help from others (including Count Eustace of Bologne) that he did not remember after having won victory, and was in general an unsavory person who took advantage of others to improve his own position and power, leading to a great deal of injustice in England and to generations of conflict within France over the anomalous position of a duke of France being a king of another country.
And tapestries are not only subjects of great seriousness but also considerable humor and enjoyment. A while ago, for example, I laughed at a Babylon Bee image that showed some exotic carpets at the trial for someone who had been caught up in a federal investigation. A carpet is a source of humor in the movie Aladdin, as expressive flying carpets are something that can be considered reliably humorous to children. I have even found humor relating to carpets in my own travels, as my trip to Turkey in 2006 included a visit to an area where people were making tapestries and trying to sell them to gullible tourists who were told that the rather plain and ordinary carpets were worth more than their inflated price, despite the fact that such carpets would have to be shipped to the United States because they were too bulky and too heavy to bring as part of one’s luggage. I have long enjoyed my own tapestry given to me by a former boss of mine, a beautiful East Asian tapestry in dark blue of a melancholy looking woman. And even in a country and society where fine arts are not easily appreciated, it seems likely that tapestries will be enjoyed as either a source of humor or a luxury good worth buying for some time to come, or even as a symbol of the way our own lives are woven together.