Emergent meaning

If something else had happened, life would mean something different now. But what happened is in the past, and the past can’t be changed. I have to accept what is.

Most of the time, we hear this as a truism. When we emotionally grapple with certain past events and their consequences, however, it’s a major personal victory when at long last we take a deep breath and resign ourselves to the realities.

Imagine I turn my vehicle left at an intersection and suffer an accident. My arm is broken. The car is totaled. My passenger is dead.

I might wonder what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left. Those thoughts might be intrusive, even obsessive. I will never find out the answer to What if something else had happened?

Some game pieces are still in play, and I can change those outcomes. I bounce back financially; I get a new car; my arm heals; survivors forgive me. But other outcomes are already set in stone. The old car, reduced to twisted pieces of metal, isn’t worth fixing and is sent to the scrap heap. The dead person does not come back to life. The meaning of these events is distressing; I resist the meaning, which leads me to resist the reality of the events that produce this meaning. I “know” the events were real and can’t be changed, but I wish that weren’t true and I search in vain for another workaround. The ultimate solution may be simply to accept what is.

In this hypothetical example, I am considering meaning as an emergent property of material reality. Emergence means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain confluence of events in my life doesn’t leave me only with the events themselves, but it also yields meaning: psychological, social, financial, and so on. Wanting to change the meaning means wanting to change the realities on which the meaning is based. If I’m stuck with the relevant realities, I may be distressed at finding that I am stuck with the meaning, too.

Book cover: C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Edited by Gregory Bassham.

I recently heard this described using the example of a mosaic. (It happened to be a mosaic of Darth Vader, which is appropriately dark.) David Kyle Johnson says in “Naturalism Undefeated” in the anthology C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics that “it makes no sense to suggest that you could subtract Vader and yet leave all the individual frames of the mosaic alone. If the tiles are arranged just as they are, Vader necessarily exists.” Johnson is writing about the mind arising from the physical brain. I’m applying the same idea to deriving meaning from the world, a more popular daily concern. The world has given us a bunch of mosaic tiles and we see that they form an image. Sometimes we don’t like the image. If we can rearrange some of the tiles, great; but if all the tiles are glued and dried, we’re stuck with what the overall image means to us.

“Emergence” (or, similarly, “supervenience”) is an academic term, but it yields a practical insight for dealing with emotional distress:

If I want to change what my situation means to me, I have to take action and do something differently.

If I can’t or won’t change my situation or at least allow in new information and experiences, then I have to accept that the meaning isn’t going to change, either.

Sunday’s Sermon: a riddle.

 

The following poem was published on February 2, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. It contains descriptions and clues of 11 famous literary figures. The poem was only attributed to “P.” However, 20th century literature professor Thomas Ollive Mabbott credits Edgar Allan Poe with writing the poem. Mabbott also managed to identify all 11 literary figures hidden in the verse.

 

Enigma

 

The noblest name in Allegory’s page,

The hand that traced inexorable rage;

A pleasing moralist whose page refined,

Displays the deepest knowledge of the mind;

A tender poet of a foreign tongue,

(Indited in the language that he sung.)

A bard of brilliant but unlicensed page

At once the shame and glory of our age,

The prince of harmony and stirling sense,

The ancient dramatist of eminence,

The bard that paints imagination’s powers,

And him whose song revives departed hours,

Once more an ancient tragic bard recall,

In boldness of design surpassing all.

These names when rightly read, a name [make] known

Which gathers all their glories in its own.

[Some of the literary figures in Poe’s poem “Enigma” are much more obvious than others, partially due to the relevance that these writers have maintained in the 21st century. Some are from the ancient world, and some are Poe’s contemporaries. Many of the storytellers that Poe identifies had a knack for penning speculative poems—tales of dreams and faeries and monsters and gods and the like. In a way, the poem Enigma is Poe’s list of the founders of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.]

 

What does that mean?

Meaning of Meaning (Ogden and Richards): “Meaning of Meaning”
C. K Ogden & I. A. Richards

Any discussion of meaning should begin with the classic book by Ogden and Richards. The link above takes you to a page of informative stuff: a slide show intro., links to several papers, and other references. The first task is to try to get clear just what sort of question one is asking when one asks “What does that mean?” E.g., look at these examples:

  1. What do those flashing lights mean? [asked by a driver speeding along the Island highway]
  2. What do these red spots mean? [asked by a patient in the emergency room at NRGH]
  3. What does “retromingent” mean? [asked by a smart-ass student in grade four – our son]
  4. What does it mean to say “Jesus is the Lamb of God”? [asked by a reader of John]
  5. What do those dark clouds mean? [asked by a boater in the channel]
  6. What does Yeats mean when he writes “slouching toward Bethlehem”?

A click on the header should take you to a copy of the book!

“Bei Hennef”

rtb2.jpg In the Introduction to Reading the Bible I wrote:

“My general notion of literature includes these claims: literature is about the world, interpretation is a creative act, intention is a necessary condition for writing of any kind, there are four focal points for any work of literature: poet, text, world, and reader.”

I still believe those claims, and in reading the love poem below it helps to know more about the world (context) Lawrence inhabited when he wrote the poem. As readers,  I hope you will contribute to the meaning of the poem by sharing your responses!

Aerial view of Hennef, Germany, in the foregro...

Aerial view of Hennef, Germany, in the foreground are river Sieg and Bundesautobahn 560. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bei Hennef

D. H. Lawrence

The little river twittering in the twilight,
The wan, wondering look of the pale sky,
This is almost bliss.

And everything shut up and gone to sleep,
All the troubles and anxieties and pain
Gone under the twilight.

Only the twilight now, and the soft “Sh!” of the river
That will last forever.

And at last I know my love for you is here,
I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,
It is large, so large, I could not see it before
Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,
Troubles, anxieties, and pains.

You are the call and I am the answer,
You are the wish, and I the fulfillment,
You are the night, and I the day.
What else—it is perfect enough,
It is perfectly complete,
You and I.
Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!


This poem is in the public domain.

About This Poem

“Bei Hennef” was published in Love Poems and Others (Duckworth and Co., 1913).
David Herbert Lawrence was born in England on September 11, 1885. He published several volumes of poetry, including Last Poems (1932) and The Ship of Death (1933). He died on March 2, 1930.
Poetry by Lawrence

The Collected Poetry of D. H. Lawrence
(Neeland Media, 2013)

On Meaning

haloRecently I have been listening to audio books in the gym while I work out. It helps to pass the time in an other wise boring activity (row, row, lift, lift). Currently I am listening to a fine reading of Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”. It is a fascinating story. [BTW, the best free source for audio books]

In his “Heart of Darkness” Conrad has his narrator say:

“The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

What do you think this comment says about the meaning of “yarns” in general?

[In the picture the halo around the moon is where the meaning is to be found.]