27 October 2010

The meaning of hawks and apples

The old apple tree grows more beautiful each day, its petals still tinged with pink as it approaches the peak of its flowering. On mornings like this, the light flat and grey, hazy with misty drizzle, the colours become more apparent yet they still retain a refined, subtle elegance, so different from the brash spectacular show of the same tree lit by sunlight against the dark hills, yet no less affecting. Yesterday a pale kahu cruised low over the edge of the terrace behind the apple; it banked steeply, dropping down to land out of sight in the channel of the old, abandoned road. The pale bird echoed the pale flowers; the coincidence of colour seemed no coincidence at all, as if through some ineffable communication bird and tree had conspired to reward me simply for noticing.

Many rationalists would rubbish this, I suspect. Coincidence and nothing more, they'd say; this talk of trees and birds conspiring is at best metaphor but more likely nonsense. I wonder. Of course they don't conspire (but note I said "as if" they conspired); however, to dismiss the metaphor as meaningless nonsense seems, well, irrational. I'm far from an expert on Wittgenstein, but when he said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence," [1] I'm pretty sure he wasn't saying everything that can't be expressed in words is meaningless, but that words — language, in other words — can't express everything meaningful.

Language does not merely describe and explain: it evokes, and sometimes the point of saying something is precisely to evoke a feeling rather than explain an event. Something heard (or read) can be felt as much as logically understood, and sometimes what's heard or read can be felt more than it can be logically understood. I’m no expert on T.S. Eliot, either, but this, I think, is what he meant when he coined the phrase "objective correlative". Moreover, feeling, in the sense of intuition or emotional response, and logic aren't mutually exclusive: both are approaches to understanding.

But I suspect the most important point is that meaning probably isn't inherent in any event; instead, it's conferred on the event by the observer or participant. As far as I’m aware, humans are the only animals able to invest an event with meaning [2]; perhaps, therefore, an important part of being human consists in the creation of meaning, and one of the functions of meaning is to engender respect and appreciation.

Meaning, too, cannot always be explained, even in theory — in fact, I suspect we understand the meaning of many events intuitively, and the attempt to explain what something means destroys the meaning. I've long noticed my own aversion to hearing someone say of a poem, "But what does it mean?" — a question that for most good poems is usually the least useful, most inappropriate question one could ask; a question second in pointlessness and potential destructiveness only to an attempt to answer it. As the poet Archibald MacLeish said so succinctly (and to my ear, unpoetically), “A poem should not mean/But be”.

So, I don't doubt the pale hawk circling the flowering apple on that grey morning had some kind of powerful meaning, but it too remains as ineffable as the metaphorical communication I alluded to. I can respect and appreciate it, but I can't explain it — certainly not in words. Forgive me for not passing over it in silence.

[1] Proposition 7 of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
[2] ...which might mean our understanding of the concept of meaning is as poor as our understanding of the consciousness of animals.

1.Evening in the valley, from the edge of the terrace. 26 October 2010.
2. Adventitious shoots on one of the old poplars near the edge of the terrace.
3. A kahu's always somewhere nearby — not in this photo, but perhaps that's how it should be.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Bob McKerrow said...

It's too early in the morning in Colombo to fully grasp this one Pete, except to say this quote rings so true for me "Meaning, too, cannot always be explained, even in theory — in fact, I suspect we understand the meaning of many events intuitively, and the attempt to explain what something means destroys the meaning."

Perhaps Victor Frankl was going down a similar path to you Pete, but in a more brutal environment when he wrote : "A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impar......"

Pete, this is an inspiring posting.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
The line "Where of one cannot speak,therefore one must pass over in silence", strikes a chord with me Pete. Sometimes I have moments in the mountains I try to share with words somehow, most often I just absorb them.
Thanks for sharing this one.

Zhoen said...

I read once "nature doesn't mean. That's a human concept." Which doesn't make the exercise of looking for meaning useless.

I love the intuitive understandings. But I always wonder about other irrational human beliefs that are damaging, idiotic, held by the religious nut-jobs and the wildly anxious. And although the two seem like they must be different, I feel hard pressed to explain how. Where is my proof? Other than results, but then the believers would say exactly the same thing about their actions and consequences.

beadbabe49 said...

I find the meaning in a piece after I've finished it...and even then I know I'm only getting a small piece of it.

pohanginapete said...

Bob, thank you. I'm glad my path doesn't remotely resemble what Frankl had to endure, but if I have to face it, I'm sure I'll find strength in his example.

Kia ora Robb. Me too — something about being among mountains does that. Even if someone else has shared the moment, I've usually found words unnecessary; a nod, a look, or even nothing at all still seems more than sufficient. Perhaps that's an indication of the company I've been fortunate enough to keep in those environments.

Zhoen, I struggle with the same difficulty. I think of the fervour of a particular religious group down South, whose aim seems to be to fill the world with as many descendants as possible, and I realise they're far more convinced than I am that they're right; they're impervious to rational argument and adamant in their extra-rational beliefs.

Beadbabe, I've often thought the same thing. But you, as creator of the piece, are also responsible for much of the meaning you don't even recognise. Creation is by no means an entirely deliberate or conscious act; in fact, I wonder whether much of the (artificial) distinction between "art" and "craft" lies in the relative contributions of intuition and deliberate act? Admittedly, I don't like the distinction — all (?) works have elements of both, and the boundary between an "artwork" and a "craftwork" is so fuzzy it's almost useless.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

ok so i particluarly like the last shot of the tree against the windswept sky

OK - i think i put up a post about the inner voice a while ago - you know: when you read something you immediately sound it out in your head to make sense of it? Well a profoundly deaf person (from birth) has to understand and make sense of the world entirely without this

So - yes i think there are definately experiences for which words are not enough and also that this is a good thing: sometimes its important to be able to feel something entirely with your soul and trapping that feeling in words can seem pointless

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, thanks :^) That's a good point about profoundly deaf people. I suppose someone who can't hear at all eventually processes language visually, but I can't imagine it easily. I "hear" it in my head, even when I'm reading it.

I agree with your last point, too. To me, language is translation — at least largely.

Relatively Retiring said...

A sideline, this, because I'm still processing the more profound aspects of your post - but the Deaf community is proud and protective of its visual sign language, and many young deaf children can be 'age equivalent' in language skills.
I realise this is a subject for interesting debate and not directly appropriate to your post....but it's important not to see limits in the ways in which language may be perceived!

pohanginapete said...

RR, I think it's highly relevant to the post — I'd see it as exploring rather than as a sideline. It's also a good reminder that not everyone processes language similarly. Thanks :^)