Friday, November 5, 2010

Devil In The Details (Part 2)

Note to visitors: This is Part 2 of a three-part post.  Please refer to Devil in the Details (Part 1) for background.  I present a Theology of Meaning diagram and contrast its highest and lowest poles of meaning-making. There are two music-playlist players: a blue one of Heaven-songs, a crimson one of Hell-songs.  A third single-track player (with John Gorka’s song “Temporary Road”) also appears.

Here is my Theology of Meaning, not all meaning but semantic meaning, the expressiveness attached to language, utterance, logic. Why a "theology"?  Because a corrupt misuse of language pervades political and media discourse, seen routinely in attack speech and marketing falsity.  I want to describe this misuse for what it is and position it where it belongs, in the trash.

There is a moral dimension to public discourse.  When information spreads about a person or group, and when that information dresses as truth, and when in fact that truth libels and slanders, then we are in moral territory.  Worse, when we ingest this foulness as if it were gold, and in turn share our new truth with others, the moral issues thicken.

What is "moral" in a culture derives etymologically from what is customary or habitual.  "Moral" is derived from mores, the plural of the Latin word mos [custom, habit], and in English "mores" still carries the same meaning as its Latin forbear.

So when dis-information and slander become habitual, it's troubling. And I want to counter this corruption with a larger moral perspective –– a theology.  I am not entirely comfortable with this approach since it springs from indignation more than common sense, but I am going ahead anyway.

Enough preamble.  Here is the diagram:


Atop the chart is HEAVEN: the mental home of godlike perception, home to those who make novel links among elements in a perceptual field –– combining ordinary elements in extraordinary ways.  Their language shows more metaphoric and evocative wordplay than we find in everyday speech.  It has a skip in its step.  Adjectives like catchy, arresting, inspiring, stirring come to mind as descriptors for such language.


Poets, artists, dreamers tend to use it, and small children do so naturally.  As when a two-year-old asks his mother whether an unknown truck he is looking at might be an "email truck."

An "email truck" joins two representations, email and truck, which together create a new whole. One aspect of this is spontaneity. The child does this effortlessly, the perception just "coming" to him. Another aspect is the child-mind itself.  Small children are not so locked into fixed language meanings and thing-categories as are adults, and are freer to summon novel possibilities of meaning.  (See Remember Me for a discussion of the child-mind and imaginal possibilities.)

Grown-ups can be creatively spontaneous too, but a precondition of unfocused awareness helps –– a relaxed receptivity, with indistinct boundaries between me and not-me, as in dreaming, reverie, meditation.  At these times, the adult mind is not focusing on an object, be that object physically outside of self, or held in mind as an internal object: a word we are trying to recall, a name to go with a face, a problem to be solved.  Released from concentration, we relax into a wider imaginal palette, freed up to create novel meanings –– thoughts and images emerging unbidden.  (See Seaweeds for a discussion of unfocused attention and the emergence of creative thought.)

Here are some passages that speak to unfocused awareness, spontaneity, creative spark.  The first is by Paul Simon:

     The question of artistic bliss is really interesting ... I guess I first
     felt it when I wrote the melody and the words "Like a bridge over
     troubled water, I will lay me down."  I remember being surprised.
     I had no idea where those words and melody came from, and I
     thought, "Well, that's better than you usually do."
     ("Up Front" section, New York Times Book Review, 10/31/10)

And here is Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822):

     Let us recollect our sensations as children.  What a distinct
     and intense apprehension had we of the world and of
     ourselves! ... .  We less habitually distinguished all that we saw
     and felt, from ourselves.  They seemed as it were to constitute
     one mass.  There are some persons who, in this respect, are
     always children.  Those who are subject to the state called
     reverie, feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding
     universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into
     their being.  They are conscious of no distinction.  And these are
     states which precede, or accompany, or follow an unusually
     intense and vivid apprehension of life.  As men grow up this
     power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and
     habitual agents.  Thus feelings and then reasonings are the
     combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts, and of a
     series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.
     ("On Life" [c. 1815; pub. 1840]; see Shelley, for essay.)

And then there is Ezra Pound's poem, "In a Station of the Metro" (1916):
     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
     Petals on a wet, black bough.

Followed by his commentary on the making of the poem:

     Three years ago in Paris I got out of a "metro” train at La
     Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then
     another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and
     then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to
     find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not
     find any words that seemed worthy, or as lovely as that
     sudden emotion.  And that evening I found, suddenly, the
     expression.  I do not mean that I found words, but there
     came an equation ... not in speech, but in little splotches
     of colour.

Pound adds that it took months before a verbal metaphor ("Petals on a wet, black bough") would take the place of his visual "equation" of color splotches.  About the completed poem, he concludes:

     I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a   
     certain vein of thought.  In a poem of this sort one is trying    
     to record the precise instant when a thing outward and    
     objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and    
     (from Gaudier-Bryzeska [1916],  Modern American Poetry website.)

Paul Simon implies, and Shelley and Pound directly speak of a precondition of unfocused awareness, a "certain vein of thought.”  And each stresses the suddneness of the creative moment, the "precise instant" that a metaphor pops into being to give shape and vigor to something on our mind.

We use terms like "symbolic" or "metaphoric" to describe such creative transformations, terms that share the idea of a Poundian "equation" –– that something can stand for (re–present) something else.  Such terms imply an evocative potential, because certain language triggers associations, a wider compass of thoughts, images, feelings.  Not all creative language is symbolic or metaphoric, but it does use singular and evocative wordplay to expand a picture and give it zest.

I cited Pound’s "In a Station of the Metro" as one example of creative perception, and earlier, in Part 1 of this post, Wallace Stevens' poem, "Anecdote of the Jar."  Here are some other examples:

   Temporary Road:
   John Gorka

In his 1992 song, "Temporary Road," John Gorka  describes a young soldier ice-skating at night, on the eve of his deployment to Iraq.  One of its verses goes:
     When the ice gives in beneath you  
     You know it changes how you dream  
     And you will never be the same again  

And here is "The Sky Is Blue" (1976), by poet David Ignatow (1914–1997):

     Put things in their place,
     my mother shouts.  I am looking
     out the window, my plastic soldier
     at my feet.  The sky is blue
     and empty.  In it floats
     the roof across the street.
     What place, I ask her.  

And lastly, "A Blessing" (1963), by James Wright (1927–1980):

     Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
     Twilight bounds softly on the grass.
     And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
     Darken with kindness.
     They have come gladly out of the willows
     To welcome my friend and me.
     We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
     Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
     They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
     That we have come.
     They bow shyly as wet swans.  They love each other.
     There is no loneliness like theirs.
     At home once more,
     They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
     I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
     For she has walked over to me
     And nuzzled my left hand.
     She is black and white,
     Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
     And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
     That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
     Suddenly I realize
     That if I stepped out of my body I would break
     Into blossom.

This James Wright poem is striking –– as in, "... if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom."  Savor that, then maybe take a break from this lengthening post.  Meanwhile, my editors and I will be checking that our trousers are tightly cinctured, for reasons soon to become evident.


Sadly, not all creative language is Heaven-sent.  Some slinks out of hell –– HELL MAJOR in my Theology chart –– a nether region where words deceive, and where wily operatives craft language that is creative, yes, but only to break up something, foment division, steer us toward a preferred camp. This language actually mimics godlike creativity, exploiting compelling and stirring word combinations, only for shabby, ignoble purposes.

Rather than expand a picture, devilish phrasing narrows it into a black and white landscape:

     Mike, this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on.

     (Delaware GOP Senate Primary candidate, Christine

     O'Donnell, 9/9/10)

Yikes!  What an arch and catchy quote, but it has a dark heart: it creates in order to divide.  What we remember is the phrase "man-pants" (highlighting an irrelevant detail) and the evocative categories it connotes: manly types versus wusses.  The actual issue under debate recedes into the background.  The phrase intends us to react but not think.

In Rhode Island recently, a political television ad voiced concern over a proposed 1% sales tax on currently exempt items, a tax proposed by gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chaffee.  A patrician–sounding woman (cut to the interior of a fine home) informs that while she has done well in her life, she worries about the people who are "struggling," and how this tax will hurt them.  A solemn voice-over intones that if you care about people who are struggling, you won't vote for Chaffee.  No mention is made of Chaffee's opponent, nor any wider set of campaign issues, nor any positive rationale for such a sales tax.  Again, a detail is highlighted (sales tax), and two categories are created (compassionate people, heartless people).  Any larger picture is omitted and one is left to consider only whether one is a caring person or a churl.  (See Part 1 for a definition of intentionally deceptive meaning making.)

But "man-pants" grit and "sales tax" alarms pale in contrast to what is possible in better hands.  In this regard, let us turn to the late Spiro Agnew, a past master of the game:
  • An intellectual is a man who doesn't know how to park on a bike.
  • In the United States today, we have more than our share of
    the nattering nabobs of negativism.
  • Three things have been difficult to tame: the oceans, fools
    and women.  We may soon be able to tame the oceans;
    fools and women will take a little longer.
Ah, the good old days –– even in Hell there are levels: Spiro Agnew, a master demon* of the forked tongue; Christine O'Donnell, a mere witch wannabe.  Again, note how language divides, sets up desirable versus undesirable categories, arrogantly redefines identities of people or groups.  We are prompted to choose sides, not think about issues. (See Part 1 for a discussion of the character assassination of Ms. Shirley Sherrod.)

*(Spiro Agnew was 39th vice-president of the United States, during Richard Nixon's presidency.  Both men resigned, Agnew in 1973, as part of a plea bargain related to charges of bribery, tax fraud, extortion, and conspiracy; Nixon in 1974, in the context of impeachment charges related to the Watergate scandal.)

Finally, I want to revisit HEAVEN and godlike perception.  Such perception gives an original, memorable shape to an element of experience.  For example, when the metaphor "a bridge over troubled water" came into Paul Simon's mind, it gave shape to an attitude of steadfastness.  But that metaphor did more than imaginatively render a lover's steadfastness.  There was joy in its emergence: being there at its birth brought "artistic bliss," as Simon tells us.  (Contrast this to the venom in the blogger's attack on Ms. Shirley Sherrod [Part 1].  That blogger had seemingly rolled in something bad, then in turn rubbed his stench on to us, leaving us violated and unclean.  If the blogger found any bliss in doing this, it only suggests sadism, not creative joy.)

So it is fun to be creative.  But why should this be so?  My first thought is that spontaneity in creative work is inherently satisfying.  We feel animated and free, and that seems close to happy.  (Even while I write this, appearing in mind is an image of Snoopy giddily skipping rope.)

But that is only part of it.  Important also is the contrast between spontaneous metaphor and the state of unfocused awareness preceding it.  That is, the precondition of reverie doesn't just sponsor creativity, it provides an emptiness into which new form pops.  This lends the arrival of the new an aura of tingling magic: you yourself don't know how you pulled it out of the hat.  When Paul Simon says, "I had no idea where those words and melody came from," I infer a bit of awe. As if birth of a new metaphor were analogous to witnessing spontaneous land reclamation from the sea, word-islands suddenly emerging from unconscious subjectivity.

This creative something-out-of-nothing has the character of a revelation.  For an instant, something large and unseen and generative manifests in your life.  It drops a little word-gift into your mind.  I find such a moment to be vaguely and pleasurably transcendent.  Which takes me back to godlike perception –– an ancient capacity and a secular version of God's creative activity in the Old Testament.  That God, we recall, is a Spirit who hovers over and proceeds to bring form out of void:
     And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness
     was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God
     moved upon the face of the waters.
     (Genesis 1:2 [King James Version])

This verse of Genesis anticipates Shelley's discussion of reverie, the sense that for some people, "their nature is dissolved into the surrounding universe, or [that] the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being."  Spirit floats over formless, dark, empty waters, then ... presto! something emerges from nothing, that “something” being a series of dialectical forms which order previously empty space into light-dark, day-night, heaven-earth, up-down, dry-wet, and so on.  And the Spirit of God which creates these things does so in the moment that it names them:
     And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
     (Ibid. 1: 3)
     And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering
     together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw
     that it was good.
     (Ibid. 1:10)

These names “Light,” Earth,” “Seas” identify natural phenomena.  But they also reveal that phenomena.  Prior to "Earth" and "Seas" these now-labeled phenomena were waiting to be born, existing only as sensory impressions of difference.

I am no theologian* (despite compiling a Theology of Meaning), and I mention the Old Testament God only to draw parallels between the Creator’s process and creative meaning making in humans:
  • An initial seedbed in which unfocused awareness –– a kind of spirit –– moves over a formless void, with no-thing emerging yet.
  • Spontaneous revelation of an original perception: a thought, turn of phrase, name.
  • The new perception –– say, "email truck" –– is born in words that name something, words that serve as a skin or containing form for that thing.
  • The actual link between unfocused awareness and spontaneous perception is not clear.  Something not there before now presents in one's mind.
This feels like discovery, like a lucky find, as if suddenly and pleasurably we find the right words.  But it really results from unconscious meaning making, whereby a relevant word or phrase gives shape to something (memory, image, concern) that had been awaiting language to capture its essence.  An islet of word alchemy surfaces to identify something that until then had been unshaped and unnamed.

In this way, “Petals on a wet, black bough" distills the memory of flowing faces in a train station; the dreadful cracking of ice beneath a skater indelibly illustrates a shock to faith; a communion with a pastured horse is felt as transformative blessing, one so rearranging that "if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom.”

Naming by the Spirit of God formulates the amorphous, and naming by humans re-presents our unformed experiences.  Spirit creates form, mind creates form.  The necessary precondition of reverie is perhaps similar to meditative prayer.  Were this church, now would be a good time to say, "Let us pray."  But since this is not church, I will close with, "Let us have reverie.”

*(This is a provisional statement.  In the final section of this post, Devil In The Details [Part 3], I will suggest that most of us are, in fact, theologians.)


Jan B said...

Hi Kit,

So much to think about... I read this post last week and re read it again tonight.

I was able to get the music to work. "Temporary Road" is a selection that I have not listened to in a long while. Did you have the chance to see John Gorka when he was at the Odeum in East Greenwich several years ago? I remember that he seemed somewhat nervous sitting on stage talking to those of us in the audience, but the minute he began to sing his nervousness disappeared.

I miss that theatre! We were lucky to see several wonderful concerts in that small venue.

Anxiously awaiting part 3......!

Kit said...

Thanks Jan. I did see John Gorka but don't remember the anxiety so much...saw him also up north somewhere at the Peeptoad Coffee House.
Part 3 is in my head but my head and I are in Oregon and Washington at the moment. Thanks again.

Comments are appreciated: