Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dreaming of Beauty & Meaning

This morning I awoke from a dream, the last sentence of which I almost spoke aloud as I opened my eyes, "The difference between what Sarah does with words, which is the epitome of incoherence, and what a poet does with incoherence, which is the evocation of beauty, is the difference between a person who rejects the importance of meaning and one who creates new meanings by confronting the unknown."

Yes, sometimes I talk this way in dreams. Usually only when I've been drinking rum and coke (or in this case, hot spiced cider and rum) the night before. What can I say? If I'm careful, rum is my shiny, bronze, rubber-pencil kind of key to insight. Easy to lose, difficult to use, but every once in a while effective. The trick is keeping the brain amused and the mind awake. (Of course, sometimes my dreaming mind needs no help from rum, and I have dreams like the one about not-corn that led to revelations about creative, loving freedom.)

I know exactly what sparked the dream: two statements I recently read in Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology, put in marvelous juxtaposition.

In the first, during a discussion of the three levels of meaning in language (syntax, coherence and consistency), Sokolowski explores the nature of incoherence, when "there is nothing wrong with the syntax of a proposition, but its contents are wrongly forced together." Following a few examples (my favorite being: "My cat is a filibuster."), Sokolowski says: "All such statements, incidentally, could be given a meaning, if they were to be taken metaphorically, but we are presuming that they are being stated literally. Indeed, the nature of metaphor is to bring together terms from different regions of discourse in order to articulate new aspects in the things we are talking about. A metaphor flaunts its incoherence in order to make a point [emphasis added]."

At the time, this statement put me in mind of the recent conversations I've been having about 'the meaning of "God"' and various attempts to meet this demand for meaning with thorough philosophical analysis. Accusations of incoherence and 'meaninglessness' abound, of course, whenever average people do their best to explain experiences and ideas that reside largely in the realm of metaphor and paradox. If we acknowledge both the responsibility to be intellectually honest and the possibility that paradox can itself be a threshold to meaning, the question that slunk about, unconsciously unresolved, in my mind was, how do we distinguish poetry (especially spiritual poetry) from mere nonsense?

Gourd, Softened & CompleteThe second statement that fed my dream-revelation was in Sokolowski's later discussion of the idea of "beauty," which he ties (without justification or explanation, I noticed) to the inherent curiosity of the human mind. He writes, "We are continually astonished to see what a thing is and also what else it can be, what 'other sides' it can offer us." And again, "Everything--a garden or a tree, a piece of jewelry or a favorite walk--has its kalon and is beautiful or admirable after its own fashion."

Now, to insist that everything is beautiful in its own way is, I think, a fundamentally controversial, even (r)evolutionary statement to make. Socrates, in discussing the concept of beauty as caught up in the notion of "the fitting", implies that something can be beautiful without being perceived or known as beautiful, but Sokolowski takes this to the next level, suggesting that it is our very inability to know everything about a given object that actually makes it beautiful. "It generates new appearances, to a dative that will appreciate them, with greater and greater intensity, not with diminishing strength. It is inexhaustible, an endless reservoir of surprising disclosures. [...] Any truth that we achieve is always surrounded by absence and hiddenness, by mystery, since the thing we know is always more than we can know, the reference is always more than the sense."

Here again, I hear echoes of the continuing conversation about 'God'. "It generates new appearances to a dative that will appreciate them;" "the thing we know is always more than we can know"--these sound remarkably similar to the 'cop-outs' of 'believers' in describing 'God' as beyond definition or imagery, as tied up in the personal revelations to and experiences of those willing to believe. Yet they are also simple, practical statements about knowledge, about the startlingly rich nature, not only of some deity in some religious tradition, but of everything in the world, every manifest particular that we, as reasoning and self-aware beings, seek out, experience and perceive.

In my dream, a girl named Sarah spouted off nonsense and people called it poetry. But what is the difference between poetry that uses incoherence as metaphor to push the boundaries of conventional thought and break open new possibilities of meaning, and simple incoherence for the sake of obfuscation and confusion? The people in my dream called Sarah's stuff 'poetry' because it meant nothing--they were under the impression that poetry was synonymous with incoherence and, therefore, meaninglessness. This is a fairly common modern opinion of poetry and its worth to the ordinary reading public, even for plenty of poets themselves who seek to make their work impressive in its obscurity and aural acrobatics. Likewise, plenty of religious people, average 'believers,' show disdain for reason and philosophy, refusing to say what their simply stated creeds 'really mean', clinging to vagueness and incoherence as if these were, in themselves, antidotes to reductionism.

But then, poetry is not merely pretty, confusing words--poetry has to do with the beautiful. If Socrates and Sokolowski are on the right track, the beautiful is an experience that grows out of curiosity, the paradox of knowledge and the infinite ability of the particular to continue to reveal itself in continuously new and interesting ways. To shut down the work of beauty, one need only claim to know everything about a given particular--either that one knows definitively what it is, or that one knows it is most definitely nonsense. Either way, it ceases to hold our attention or to reveal new meanings and truths to us. What makes something poetry, rather than ordinary nonsense, is the trust readers have that the poet intends meaning even if that meaning is not immediately obvious or unfamiliar, and, out of that trust, the reader pursues the work of seeking out and creating that meaning for herself.

The same can be said for the spiritual life. Here again, the purpose of belief is not to shut down the process of meaning-making by declaring to have definitively arrived at all the answers, but to insist that even things that are literally incoherent can still have a metaphorical meaning, that each particular--whether those particulars be physical, material objects or personal emotional or mental experiences--can be related to all other particulars in infinitely new, insightful, meaningful ways. Belief in the Divine is akin to the belief that the world is beautiful and curious precisely because its meaning is inexhaustible, even a bit chaotic. But to communicate this meaning, to talk about what these meanings might be, we have to enter a space of trust. We have to accept that religious 'believers' with whom we might not agree are still sincere in their attempts to describe the meaningfulness of their beliefs, just as we trust that the poet is not merely trying to confuse or impress us but really does have something meaningful to say. On the other hand, we must also do the hard work of seeking meaning for ourselves, and acknowledge honestly when we suspect others of intentional nonsense.

As usual, I have so much more to say on this topic (the title of this post has changed at least a half-dozen times as I've had to scale back my ambitions--the afternoon, and now evening, wears on and for now discussions of the "meaningful particular" and the spiritual use of metaphor, paradox, mystery and attention remain too large and elusive--like pterodactyls. For now, then, perhaps I'll have to be content with the half-subconscious dream-processing. After all, there will always be more to write than there will be time to write it.

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