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Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

Rachel’s tale

See this, and be renewed. See this, and live afresh.

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As we all know, the scientific way of seeing the world has brought immeasurable benefits to all mankind ; so many benefits, in fact, that many decent people cannot bring themselves to see the world in any other way.  They just know that the only realities are those which arrive to us through our physical senses.  If a thing may be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelt then it is real ; if not, then it is fantasy.

The principle that underlies this way of living is the very respectable m.k.s. system.  The m.k.s. stands for metres, kilogrammes and seconds, which are the standard units of length, mass and duration – the very bedrock of good science.

Once upon a time, when people were generally better educated than they are today, it was understood that this way of seeing the world was intended to provide a very specialised form of knowledge – scientific knowledge.  Such knowledge was never intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Universe and all the things in it.  A scientist’s specialised way of understanding the world was no different, in principle, from a carpenter’s specialised way of seeing the world ; or a plumber’s, or a farmer’s, or a train-spotter’s.

But, with generally falling standards of education, a truly extraordinary state of affairs has arisen.  It is now seriously proposed that, if a thing can be measured, weighed and timed, then it is real.  And many people of a scientific disposition now say that, if a thing cannot be measured, weighed and timed, then it is illusory ; and they add that anyone who believes otherwise is either mad or evil.

Mr Gradgrind would have thoroughly approved of all this, of course – before his daughter, Louisa, through her sufferings and by God’s grace, came to his rescue.  If he were alive today, he would be ashamed.

One of the sadnesses that arises out of today’s scientific outlook is that its more zealous believers are now quite incapable of seeing in any other way.  For them, life has lost its meaning ; in place of life, they have mere existence.  But there is hope, even yet ; for a few of them are asking, “Why is our civilisation in decline?”  In decline at the very time we should expect it to be entering a new phase of development.

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An emotion is called such because it calls upon us to do something.  And the presence of an emotion is signified by more or less definite physiological movements which can be felt.  It can be a useful and revealing exercise to note where one feels a particular emotion.  Do you feel it in your legs?  In your shoulders?  In your abdomen?  Elsewhere?  And how exactly can you locate it?   Perhaps you notice that you feel it in several places, and that the feelings appear in a particular order and with distinct intensities.  Perhaps the feelings are unpleasant.

It is helpful to reflect that a pure emotion appears without any effort on your part ; it arises quite unconsciously.  Your body knows exactly what it is doing, but you do not.  You have no control over the appearance of a pure emotion ; as far as your conscious mind is concerned, it appears ‘from nowhere’ ; and that, of course, is what gives all pure emotions their mystical air.  And that is what renders them often unwelcome.  Even a pleasant emotion can be worrying because of it hidden causes – and maybe because of its hidden aims, too.

But there is something else that’s interesting about an emotion ; when we think about the emotion itself – really think about it – it disappears.  As one philosopher said, “You can do two things with an emotion, you can enjoy it or you can think about it.  But you can’t do both at the same time.”

Very well.  But how is it that poets can write so sublimely about an emotion ; how can they write while evidently experiencing it?  Bringing it to life upon the page or in their voices?  Surely the writing or speaking requires thinking about that emotion, if only to enable the right choice of words.  But why then doesn’t the poet’s emotion evaporate and drain the poem of its intensity and veracity?

The answer seems to be that the poet is not thinking about the emotion at all.  He simply writes.  The thinking is unconscious.  The words, the rhythm and the metre come automatically.  The poet at his best is taken over by his Muse, and it is she who does the intellectual work while he merely wields the pen.

Or, to be frightfully modern and boring, the poet enters into an altered state of consciousness in which the thinking becomes automatic, and makes no demands on his own emotions.  In a word, the poet is hypnotised.

Muse? Or hypnosis?  Surely it is his muse!  Surely human consciousness has a reference that is not merely personal to him.  For, if consciousness is merely personal to the individual, it can have no meaning beyond his own minute sphere of experience.  And, if that be true, then all speech and writing is drained of any universal significance.

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How often have I heard somebody say, “There’s wisdom in that book?”  We take it as a truth that a book by a learned author contains wisdom.  But is that true?

What is a book?  A physicist, speaking the language of physics, would have to say that it is but a collection of sheets of paper which have ink marks on them.  A chemist, speaking as a chemist, could analyse the paper and the ink, and tell us their compositions exactly.  But neither the physicist or the chemist would find the slightest trace of wisdom.  Wisdom is not a property of material things like books.  So, where is the wisdom?  Where, indeed, is the meaning?

We can only answer these questions by thinking.  As we survey a page of the book, we recognise the ink marks as symbols – but we can only do that if we already know of symbols.  Next, we might recognise the symbols as belonging to the Roman alphabet.  So far, we have detected little meaning and almost no wisdom.  But, if we recognise the symbols as being arranged in patterns we call words, and if we recognise the words, then we are nearer to where we want to be.  And recognition is a kind of thinking.

So meaning and wisdom are not strictly properties of the book or, indeed, of the material world.  They are properties of the mind ; of the human mind.  They are derived, not from the ink marks on the paper, but from our interpretation of them.  So a book, as a book, does not have an independent existence ; its life and light depend on its association with a human mind.

So, is it at all possible to say that a book contains meaning and wisdom?  Yes, I think it is, but only if we accept that it is we who invest the book with those qualities.  In effect, we introject the ink marks into our minds and then project their meanings back into the book.

Does all this matter?  Yes, it does.  For example, in some parts of the world, you might well be punished,  executed even, for defacing a holy book, a book of meaning and wisdom.  And that poses a nice philosophical problem.

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Nobody has ever defined, for general use, what poetry is.  As was noted in very early writings, a word cannot be defined except for the purposes of a narrow technical discussion.  As Plato said, “Don’t tell me what a word means ; tell me how you use it.”  Dr. Johnson was to come to realize the truth of this opinion when he came to write his dictionary.

So, if we cannot say in a word what poetry ‘is’, how do we recognize it when we see it?

This points to the crux of the matter.  For anything merely seen is almost devoid of meaning.  If I see a poem on a page it is not, in one strict sense, a poem at all ; it is merely ink marks on a piece of paper.  If I am to see those marks as poetry, I must first understand that they are symbols ; then I must interpret them as words ; then I must interpret their meanings, and then understand them to be poetical.

Similarly, if I hear a poem being read aloud, I must understand that the vibrations in my ear are symbols which must be interpreted as words, and then judge them to be poetical.

So a poem is not a thing that exists independently of the human mind and its consciousness.  It follows, therefore, that a poem is not ‘seen’ as such but is recognized as such.  The reader, or listener, brings his own knowledge (or memory) to poetic meaning.

It seems to me that many important consequences issue from these realizations.

This blog first appeared here :-

http://my.telegraph.co.uk/jamie_macnab/blog/2008/10/27/what_is_poetry

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