Tag Archives: meaning

Soaking Wet: truth and meaning

“All thought arises out of experience, but no experience yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (87)


In part 1 of Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind she examines (with breathless thoroughness) the concept of “Thinking” (part 2 comprises “Willing” and the appendix takes on “Judging,neither of which I have read yet).  I suppose there are three types of people: those that actively (or willfully)  don’t think, those that think, and those that go the extra bend of the river and think about thinking.

“Every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses” (87)

The senses concern themselves with truth. Verifiable information. This sort of thinking is procedural and factual. But we are endowed with the ability to internalize, generalize, and “de-sense” those facts and therefore search for meaning. The meaning can never exist in ‘the truth’ of experiences. Meaning only comes from the second part of the dual-mind—the searching, pondering mode of thinking.  I exist is a different mode of thinking than why do I exist?  Truth is irrelevant to the latter question.

“The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it finished the night before. For the need to think can never be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew” (88).

Thinking that occurs through the interaction of our senses is primary of course, as Arendt wonderfully sums up “The famous first sentence of Aristotle’s metaphysics. ‘Pantes anthrõpoi tou eidenai oregontai physei”—”All men by nature desire to know”—literally translated reads: “All men by nature desire to see and to have seen [that is, to know] (58). But, the sort of thinking that Arendt tells us Kant called the ‘intellect,’ the sort of reasoning that has no objective truth associated with it, nor does it have an end game, is a separate and separated life. It is like death in that it is abstract and utterly solitary, creating a break between mind and soul, but— it is life too—it is the wonder and the mystery: it is how we know beauty.

Thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think” (99).

Common sense thinking (cognition) does not require language. But the intellect does: “It is not our soul but our minds that demand speech.” Languages in many forms, animal languages I think included, are useful, even necessary  for communication, but this is different from the internal discursive reasoning that humans engage in and which can not be considered possible without true speech. We talk to ourselves—how bizarre and yet how essential. Arendt examines, historically, two of the major philosophical strands considering the origin of this “speculative reason” (103):

“I have dealt with two sources from which thinking as we know it historically has sprung, the one Greek, the other Roman, and they are different to the point of being opposites. On the one hand, admiring wonder at the spectacle into which man is born and for whose appreciation he is so well equipped in mind and body; on the the other, the awful extremity of having been thrown into a world whose hostility is overwhelming, where fear is predominant and from which an tries his utmost to escape” (162).

Thinking about thinking framed within those two opposing world views is quite profound. It seems to me the Roman view-point is currently in vogue, but I personally feel split unevenly between the two. Life is a wonder, and the force of the beauty insists that we speculate. It is the cause of the thinking. I can’t go a day without feeling that—hardly an hour, really. And yet I have my own pains to bear. The unfairnesses and unkindnesses that are suffered and witnessed are irrepressible.  Whywhywhy?

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. By shielding people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society. What people then get used to is less the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always led to perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars” (177).

Yes. The possession of rules is the true opium of the masses. The refusal to think creates a veneer of well-run, quasi-peaceful societies, religions and political parties, but it is truly the death of progress and hope. The death of our human-ness—our ability, gift, and need to reason.

Like the photo above of my son moments after falling into the river after having climbed out farther than any common-sense thinking would have allowed—our hopes and dreams take a pounding. Maybe we weren’t strong enough, maybe the bark underneath was rotting away, maybe it was a good risk, maybe it was a dangerously bad one. But, still, to feel the air between our fingers, the cold water, and sand in our hair and to then think of the moving water, of my sweet boy’s unflappable enthusiasm even in the face of being thrown into this river of life—I think I’d rather be alive to it all. We may be all wet, but at least we are awake.

Inability to think is not a failing of the many who lack brain power, but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded. Everybody may come to shun that intercoarse with oneself […]. thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process, its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence—it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers” (191).

Coenesthesia of Art


All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.


*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants


What I Remember

It never occurs to anybody that she might have loved someone and the love meant something to her.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (95)


I am a person who laughs a lot: on the brink of despair, over a shared meal, once over an open grave, lollygagging on a patch of grass with my children, writhing in pain that time I fell down the stairs and broke my butt- there’s rarely a reason not to laugh. Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a series of seven stories that explores lives defined by loss. Its tone is melancholy and thoughtful; the searching and mapping of love, laughter and meaning overlapping throughout the stories.

Kundera’s musings on the origin and purpose of laughter is captivating- the devil’s invention and the misinterpretation of the angel’s imitation breaking one concept into two. The Devil’s laughter came first, according to the book, and was born of malice and relief, the angel’s is a reactive laughter of joy.

Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. (62)

One word and concept to describe two very different ways of absorbing the world in all its complex horror and wonder. I can’t help believing that in navigating life, both are essential, and yet to think of laughter as having two opposing origins is fascinating, not least of all because it reminds us of the limits of our language in expressing the true depth of our real emotional lives.

But the word “border” in the common geographical sense of the term conjured up another border as well, an intangible and immaterial border he had been thinking of more and more lately. (206)

Kundera’s fascination, in this novel, with borders stems specifically from his status as a man with no country, as well as a man who has lost his father. I am mesmerized as well by the concept of borders, the tangible as well as intangible. As a species we spend an inordinate amount of time constructing them, and then an equal amount of time defining religions or philosophies that will aid us in forgetting them. All that demarcates and describes us comes down to a border. Whether it be nation, country, patrimony, love or hate. Where do I begin and end? Where do we overlap?

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. (197)

Because we do overlap. In every way, messy and neat, we are joined together and it is the “rigid conceptions,” the intangibles that manifest into tangibles that really hurt us. There are no borders that can’t be laughed away. Even if laughter is a means of forgetting, it also brings us to a relief of exultation, the border between the two opposing concepts is just as porous as all the rest.

What’s beautiful about forgetting is that it softens the rigidity. Laughter’s beauty is our remembrance of our absurdity as well as our joy.

Of love in death

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but it certainly didn’t apply to himself.
-Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych from The Riddle of Life and Death

DSCI0012The other day, a very slow day at work, I was diverted in a blogversation about love, while at the same time I was reading a very interesting book called The Riddle of Life and Death. Love, death, love, death, love.

“You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomachs than always to worry about money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”
“How cleverly you hid that you heard.” (107) – Tillie Olsen , Tell Me A Riddle

I found this book on the stacks as I was re-shelving, although there was only one it is, I think, a series of books whereby two writers are juxtaposed together. The editors, as I understand it, choose writers writing about similar subjects but from different parts of the world and/or different times. The most interesting aspect is that one writer is a man and the other a woman. It is a brilliant construct. In this book the writers and stories are Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Tillie Olsen’s Tell me a Riddle. 

That had been the most beguiling of all the “don’t read, put your book away” her life had been. Chekov indeed! (109) – Tell Me A Riddle

Both writers explore the unpopular subject of facing death, particularly death which comes to an empty life lived.

It was all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases. (32) – The Death of Ivan Ilych

Tolstoy approaches the question through a man that has lead a bloodless meaningless life. The realization is painful. After all of the faux pressing troubles of a bourgeoisie bureaucrat Ivan lacks the imagination to even consider his own mortality. And once he finally comes to terms with the fact, the meaning of his life is laid bare.

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might be true after all. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. His professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and family, all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. (94)

The way in which Tolstoy colors the lens of Ivan’s life through Ivan’s identity as a lawyer is beautifully done. You are what you do. By the time I got to the end of this sad tale, I was so thoroughly gripped that when I came to the famous words “Death is finished,” I could not help reading them again out loud. The story is quite phenomenal.

“The music,” she said, “still it is there and we do not hear; knocks, and our poor human ears to weak. What else, what else we do not hear?” (147) – Tell Me A Riddle

Like Ivan, Eva painfully disengages herself from a warped life. Ivan became a mindless drone of a lawyer who then experienced his world and all the people in it as being as condescendingly dismissive as he had been (excelling) in his job. But Eva is a woman, all her frustration turns mute. After a lifetime of financial strain her husband wants to move to a retirement complex, but she will no longer oblige his priorities. There is so much acrimony between the spouses in both books it is horrendously sad. But, when people are empty, the void is filled with a poisonous  rancor and the seep follows the generations.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (110) Tell Me a Riddle

I was deeply moved by the profundity of the above quote. Subjugation is a slow death. Eva’s journey toward a quicker death is the opposite and therefore the same as Ivan’s. While Ivan’s life was sucked out of him by his strict maintenance of his lifestyle and position of power over others, Eva’s life was sucked out of her by her position of submission. Everything that was truly her, she hid. From opposite directions both suppress their very life force. The results are heart-wrenching.

“I was here and now I’m going there! Where?” A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart. (64) -The Death of Ivan Ilych

I am willing to admit, but wouldn’t believe, that it is just me: but I found both of these stories incredibly life affirming. Both Ivan and Eva track back to a point in their lives when they were happy, before the time that for whatever reason real or imagined they smothered themselves. These stories say – don’t do that. Not just for ourselves, but for all the lives we touch as well. Love and passion are never regretted.

* Tillie Olsen’s story Tell me a Riddle was first published in America in 1961, Leo Toltoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was a 1991 Norton Press reprint of the story first published in Russia in 1886

Elephants in the Room


I am an ordinary room.
Close to the walls,
making myself small.
Far from the hearth
never mind the embers or coals.
I wrote myself a note and left it
on the counter of my dream-
Don’t feed the elephants
But I forgot to remind myself
what I could possibly mean.
Unspoken in the center
where I have no part
I am an ordinary room
suffering the elephants
of my heart.

-JA 2013

this + this = this + 2

Rabbit doesn’t want to tell him anything. The more he tells, the more he loses.
– John Updike,  Rabbit, Run

DSCI0013The question I am always interested in, and often even ask is, “What are you reading?” But what I really want to know is, “Why?” I worry that there might be a taint of accusation or judgment in the asking. But I mean it quite straightforwardly – how does one come to a book?

Lately, my reading has been influenced by others, combined with the order of the library of congress system. When I enter the red zone of the stacks in my library job to return a random book,  I can hear the catcalls of the surrounding volumes- “Hey Baby, check me out…” And I do. I hate to be rude.

Rabbit, Run was one such book. I have read a lot about John Updike, but never actually read any of his books. I always suspected I would not like them.

He sees in the dark she is frightened; her big black shape has that pocket in it, that his instinct feels like a tongue probing a pulled tooth. The air tells him he must be motionless; for no reason he wants to laugh. Her fear and his inner knowledge are so incongruous; he knows there is no harm in him. (75)

Initially I didn’t think I would relate to Rabbit, I am long past the particular stupidity of youth, that ridiculous time of life when you are suppose to make life-long decisions without having any concept of the time frame. Now more experienced, the stupidities at least take on the profundity of mortality. Still,  something in Rabbit’s brutal moments of truth and sweetness kept me reading. And then there were passages of writer-ly genius from Updike that  did for me what I always hope reading will – he made me stop reading, and think. It is that translation from the order of all the facts of the story into meaning that I really enjoy.

I have been watching a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. I love his ideas. He describes the comprehensive metaphysical universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity  consciously apprehended in communicative experience.” That’s a sentence that gives some serious pause. He is also very charming, adding an irrepressible hehe on the end of nearly all of his sentences. Framing his ideas in math and physics, the synergy of all of his “generalized principles” is wonderful.

The “this + this = this + 2” is what makes us human. It is the meaning that our limitless minds quite miraculously glean. As Rabbit flees from one experience to another, from one girl to another, the depressing physics is exposed. His immaturity and internal disconnect leaves his love in the behavioral stage. He doesn’t know what his love is. We only know how it behaves. It mysteriously comes and goes, he’s barely pierced by it when it flees. The physics of our lives, as Buckminster explains, is the path of least resistance. Rabbit thoughtlessly runs towards his missing center by whatever path is easiest at any given moment.

Rabbit leaves his old home depressed, with a feeling of his heart having slumped off center. (229)

But then. I stop reading and think. Is it possible that this idea explains the meaning behind all of our decisions and actions? I have made some pretty painful decisions in the last couple of years, but if I look at them in terms of the path of least resistance…well yes. What may look like a path of ridiculous hurdles and mountains of Everest proportions, is a water slide compared to the alternatives.

The path of least resistance either exposes the depth of feeling that makes it the easier route, or it reveals the shallowness of feeling: proving the path unworthy of being blazed. I have discovered that, for me, any path is fundamentally easier than one that is littered with the hidden landmines  of qualifiers and suppression. We can’t really know what anyone else finds more or less resistfull, but if we understand that that is the force that guides us, then we can begin to ask the why- why is this less resisting?

Rabbit never asks why it is easier for him to run. The results are tragic.

This childish mystery – the mystery of “any place,” prelude to the ultimate, “Why am I me?” – starts panic in his heart. (283)

The truth is there is nothing childish about it.  Just stop, and think. See what your chosen path reveals.

I find that our whole education system around the world is organized on the basis of the little child being ignorant. Assuming the little child is born, is going to have to be taught, in a sense is empty waiting for information to be given by the grown ups. And so, the little child demonstrates time and again an interest in the whole universe. The child is very enthusiastic about the planetarium. The little child asks the most beautiful questions abut the total universe, continually embarrassing the grown-ups who have become very specialized and can’t answer the great comprehensive questions. We find the child then, with his propensity to comprehend totality- willing to be synergetic. Yet our education is to say – never mind about that universe, come in here and I’m going to give you and A and a B and a C…  – Buckminster Fuller

Like water, for meaning


Translator, speak to me.
Press the words of others to my ears.
By you they hum and sigh,
the buoyant tide’s realized.

When we meet along the curve,
you carry what can be,
brook what’s really true:
that fathomless  depth of – me too.

Last night I read another’s,
and missed your filling touch.
what was left was just
a hollow: an empty senselessness.

Turn the words towards me,
shape the water by your hand.
It’s our meaning that must matter,
be it – l’aqua, l’eau, oder Wasser.

JA (2012)