Friday, July 3, 2015

Dear Greer

            For the folks of the salon, who will be savoring life's meanings this weekend while we're away, and for you and Sarah, since we three never concluded our own conversation on the same subject when we sat by the heron-strewn cutbanks of the Virgin the other evening, I thought I might indulge in a further clarification of my absurdly contrarian position.
            I said then that the problem is not finding life's meaning but is the surplus of life's meanings, and I compared the quest for the meaning of life to the search for a Christmas tree. Although few people ever believe they've found the absolutely ideal tree, most more or less satisfy themselves, and, once we've gone out looking, almost no one comes home entirely empty handed, not even Charlie Brown.
            In the days since, I've grown ever more fond of that goofy, off-the-cuff analogy, which is barely an analogy at all. The very phrase, "Christmas tree," contains the sorts of meaning that we mean when we speak of  "the meaning of life."
            The old saw says one "can't see the forest for the trees." Well, we can't see any forest for all the meanings in it. The forest going about its dark competition for light says nothing except as we mean it. We attribute to woods whatever we mean by wilderness, wonder tales, hobgoblins, ancestors, Arcady, and ecosystems. When we enter a forest to find a Christmas tree, a concept itself a 19th-century conflation of bitter solstices and miraculous nativities, we are not seeing the forest for anything other than the meaning of the tree, the message meant for us.
            Even those of us who proclaim the bottomless indifference of the forest and of the whole world to the human world, tend to do so in intensely meaningful ways, drawing profound significance out of the contrast between our pathos and the silence. The poems and fictions of Stephen Crane and Thomas Hardy are hymns to the meaningful contrast of human hope and agony to a meaningless universe. They can't help themselves.
            None of us can help ourselves. We generate meaning. Sporting events and soap operas encompass and illustrate meanings nearly ex nihilo, and their meanings bump up against and enter the narratives of far more desperate territorial events. Supposedly, Japanese soldiers yelled insults about Babe Ruth at American soldiers in the Pacific Theater. The actual romances and fortunes of celebrities and politicians are made by, unmade by, and endlessly compared to the entanglements of daytime dramas and telenovelas. Real people eat the converted gains of fictive meanings as real resources and make more real people from them.
            Nor need we stop at trees, athletes, or actors. You're a biologist, so you won't find a functional mammalian comparison grotesque. We generate meaning with our faces and hands as compulsively and needfully as dogs generate scent markings with their bladders. We make meaning as we go, marking everywhere we've been.
            It may seem a paradox, given all the constant human meaning-making, that we sometimes feel we've lost the meaning of life, that we can't find any meaning. But I think our friends the dogs can help us here as well. Dogs are not scent-marking, merely. Dogs are scent-reading just as needfully.  We know this. It's why we make jokes about dogs sniffing their "pee mail." It's why, in that odd, Edwardian fantasy, My Talks with Dean Spanley, Lord Dunsany went so far as to suggest that dragging a leashed dog away from a redolent fencepost was tantamount to hauling a scholar out of a fine library.
            What we don't know are what emotions and sensations possess the sniffing dog. We usually assume that the dog with its muzzle thrust over the tailgate of a pick-up truck or out the window of a rushing car is experiencing an ecstasy of scent.  It may be, however, that the dog is not just enjoying the wind but using the occasion to search out some shaggy, great, gusty dogginess in the wide world, which, surely, if one is a dog, one just knows must be out there.
            Meanwhile, we are likewise so attuned, so used to attending to the endless human exchanges of meanings, that we have no higher expectation of the cosmos than an enlargement of our species-typical negotiations. We seek an immense and grave humanity with something meaningful to say to us, and we interpret even apparent randomness only as a silent, serious rebuke to our quest. We want an answer, even if it must be a stern one. This business of questions and answers, narrations and interpretations, provides the true pheromones of human intelligence. Life, for us, must always involve a surplus of meanings.
            We may never be contented, but perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that as long as we are us, there will be more of them.
            Here ends my pretentious prose poem for this day.

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