Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Much of the 20th century seems to have been about a flight from meaning.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not the century's fault. After all, it was the 19th century in which Hegel noticed that language negates thing in their singularity, replacing them with concepts -- as Andrew Gallix puts it, "Words give us the world by taking it away."

We've  discussed before the way words create an existence for thing separate from those things. This imbues the world with meaning, gives objects a spiritual essence that is separate from those objects, and can result in human constructs from religion to Plato's Cave.

But the 20th century saw a great flowering of human intellect  People began to appreciate the importance of language in constructing our reality, and as soon as they began to understand its power, they began to distrust it.

Consider the words of Samuel Beckett:
It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of the true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. Or is literature alone to remain behind in the old lazy ways that have been so long ago abandoned by music and painting?...
What lurks behind it? An odd phrasing that, and an odd goal. It's as if a fish wished to see what lurks behind the sea by drilling holes in it. Beckett's mind, like mine, swam in a sea of symbolic thought made possible by language. His strange and sparing use of it was compelling because, in fact, it had meaning. His work was more abstract, and more a product of our strange world of symbolic thought than the robust and playful naiveté of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which had a firmer tie to the world of discrete objects Hegel thought language distanced us from.

The modernist, almost art deco, goals that  Beckett outlined may seem quaint today, like a chrome, streamlined hood ornament of the sort he himself would have disdained.

But the discomfort with the power of language had not yet reached its climax. In his 1967 book, Of Grammatology, Belgian author  Jacques Derrida argued that writing isn't just a representation of spoken language, but affects the nature of knowledge, which  would seem like a deeper insight if Socrates had not beat him to it by a couple of millennia. Socrates believed that the written word would change the way knowledge would be passed along, the choice a teacher has to pass knowledge to a soul or the right sort being lost along the way.

Derrida, however, was worried about the violent hierarchy of signified over signifier. It sounds like a misreading of Ferdinande de Saussure to me, but never mind, I can't bring myself to care enough about Derrida to argue about him.

As Beckett observed, painting and music had strayed from adherence to meaning long before literature did. Art first ceased to be representational, then was allowed to be representational as long as it was ironic. I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to explain why the picture at left is art rather than a mere trademark violation.

A careful listening to John Cage's 4 minutes, 33 seconds, will reveal that this is the duration of complete silence the musicians keep. Yes, keep listening, at some point some Luddite has got to realize what this will mean to the American Federation of Musicians if it catches on, unless The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) can collect royalties on any period of 4'33" in which no musician is being paid to perform.

Yet no performance of 4'33" I have yet heard includes a sudden blast of sound from some rebel trombone. The modernist flight from meaning has triumphed so far. I live in hopes that the legacy of my cousin, Al Hood, a jazz musician who taught improvisational jazz, will inspire someone to rebel in the middle of a performance of that piece.

But so far, no. The man who recorded Not Quite Rite had, I must confess, a limited influence, in part because you have to be awfully good in an uncommon way of being good enough to make music the way he did when he and his friends were practicing above my bookstore in the Neptune Building.

But of course, to believe that you must make a sound, must make a meaning, to communicate with an audience as my cousin Al did became passe in modern art and music. What was Beckett talking about? This:

A complete flight from meaning and representation. I suggest that this is shallow. I suggest that to refuse to play the game of representation is to forfeit the game.

I suggest that meaning is the air our minds breathe, the sea in which minds swim. To refuse all sign and signified, or to seek to undermine them, is to seek to undermine our minds.

Would you rather read a sonnet by Shakespeare or Gertrude Stein assuring us that "as rose is a rose is a rose?" (I knew that, by the way, even before she told me.)

I've been told that the character of a journalist is someone who is fascinated by power, but abhors the use of power. Perhaps modernists like Beckett became fascinated by the power of language, but abhorred the use of the power of language. Which makes it strange that Beckett's use of language was so was Derrida's...wait, did those guys trick us, or only themselves?

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self